I’ve not known a March like this one past, cruel and bitter under a pall of grey skies. The month started with a promise of spring. We walked in slanting sunlight across the top of Hockley viaduct, hooting, miming trains. Beneath the arching brickwork the Itchen had burst its banks. The water meadows, green and sharp, brimmed with pools of sunbright water. We parted for shrieking cyclists and R tumbled with flat hands on the cold concrete. On an old siding, under a stand of fruiting hazels busy with flitting goldcrests, we saw a discarded hub cap, home to a colony of snails. There came two days of bright sun, the air bearing the first slight signs of the spring thickening – birdsong, pollensong. We waited. Then came the whispers of returning winter. Cold air from the east, bearing snow and arctic temperatures.
The cold came in overnight, a giant storm from the north east swirling across northern Europe and up across the channel islands. The air was raw and metallic, dawnlight bringing with it a purple glow that fanned out across the underside of the roof of clouds – a roof that was to stay with us for pretty much the rest of the month, yielding little, if any, rain. That day it snowed for a good 3 or 4 hours, the air thick with it. Sheltering under a canopy of arching oaks, I could almost feel the ground contracting, the newgrowth shrinking back into itself. The birds had fallen silent.
That night the storm roared around the house. I came up from sleep, dimly aware of a muffled banging. I mentally travelled the hanging air from corner to corner of the house, but couldn’t make sense of where it was coming from. I came down the stairs feeling unmoored. It was as if the interior air itself were disturbed, displaced by the ferocity outside. I opened the back door and I felt the house gather itself around me as the night, blackly malevolent, seemed to force its way in. I waded out into the liquid dark and secured the door with a bag of cement dust that, disturbed by the whipping wind, puffed motes into the air that were sucked away into the darkness.
This air from the east stayed for the rest of the month and on into April. It brought with it ghostly remnants of its provenance, a taiga-born density of cold, a breath of ice. The brute cold settled into the heart of things; objects carried a new kind of weight, as if they’d been penetrated to a molecular level. As such, the usual spring signifiers remained resolutely enfolded, the hedges and banks dull of colour, the woods silent, arenas of felt absence. Everything felt held in abeyance, waiting, waiting. In the middle of the month, I was in the Cotswolds and the weather broke for a single day. It was as if the earth threw off a layer. Huge flocks of fieldfares and redwings broke cover, driven by a frantic impulse to begin their homeward journeys; the sky was a holding-pattern of hungry red kites, all monitoring their territories for carrion; usually elusive jays dropped from the bare oaks and pecked at the raw ground. The following morning it snowed again, and the earth re-enfolded itself.
At the beginning of April, finally there came a day warm enough to stand still. I headed into the woods with the boy on his scooter. We were looking for the bluebells, usually ‘up’ by now, washing the beechwood floor with their smudges of purple. The air had lost some of its edges, and a thick greyish haze hung over the fields and distant stands of trees. We wondered together if it was pollen, or if the heat had stirred up clouds of sleeping insects? As if in answer, we saw a solitary housemartin, the first of spring. The beechwood was cool and clear, and free of the nodding bluebells. The floor, though, was carpeted with the glossy green leaves. The bluebells would come, but like everything else held in the cold paralysis, they would come late. No matter. A ragged silver-birch, multi-trunked and choked with ivy, showed signs of fresh excavations in its hollowed out base. We sat and ate jaffa cakes idly wondering if the culprit might show itself. The sky purpled above us. It quickly became grippingly cold. We headed home across a bone-hard field, out, out of the mineral wind.
place, nature, landscape
Roger Deakin's shepherd's hut (image by Justin Partyka)
A couple of things have led me back to Roger Deakin of late - a trip to the soft hollows of Suffolk and tangentially a wedding gift of a book of his, and the re-reading of JA Baker's The Peregrine, a book which in many ways is a harsher, more obsessive version of Deakin's own slow drift into the fabric of nature.
In 2005, after the success of Waterlog and during the writing of his second book Wildwood (and only a short while before his death from a brain tumour in 2006), Deakin made two programmes for Radio 4. The premise for both was very simple - to make recordings in different areas of the land he owned in Suffolk, including the farmhouse which he'd rebuilt from a ruin. The results are remarkable, gentle records of his daily movements through the landscape: listening to the timber frame house creaking in a gale, the chatter of swallows in the chimney breast, a magpie on the roof of his shepherd's hut, Deakin swimming in the moat that bordered the property. The magic is in Deakin's inclusion in the landscape, his collusion with it. He does something so simple and so fundamental, you almost see past it: he makes himself at home in the world.
Download: Roger Deakin - The House
Download: Roger Deakin - The Garden
Still from Pillars of Wisdom. Image from Ballardian.com
Paul is a friend who has been working in Abu Dhabi for some time now. The short films he has been shooting - mostly from the lonely shelf of his apartment building, high above the shifting sands - are partly a document of this loneliness as he adapts to being far from his young family, but also a document of a city paralysed in its very state of coming into being. These sparse films, soundtracked by his own ominous churning recordings, or artists from the Touch or raster-noton labels, are a mixture of fleeting impressions, and also a feat of sustained meditation - as if a prolonged looking might reveal codes hidden in the impossible geometries of structured metal and concrete. It is something utterly Ballardian in its affectlessness, yet Paul has managed to inject, or unlock (I am unsure as to which), a deep strain of melancholy into or from the architecture and from the landscape. The films are epic in every sense of the word. Simon Sellars has collected a number of Paul's films over at Ballardian, along with a short essay and some of Paul's commentary. Go see. You can also see Paul's films at his Vimeo page.
It's great to see Ballardian back, even if it is only a fitful resurrection. If the web allows for anything to extrude from its flattened and resolutely plain like surface, then Ballardian is/was a veritable high rise of a site. For now, keep an eye on Sellars' own site, and check out his brilliant recent essay Postcards from the Edgelands.
Rook. Image by foxypar4
I have been all about the corvids, recently - and it's not merely that I've been reading Mark Cocker's gorgeous book Crow Country. Or at least that isn't the sole intrusion into my life of irridescent black feathers.
It started with dusk stumble into a wood I thought I knew, but which in fact contained a dark clustered pocket of old oaks that was home to an early-summer rookery of rooks and jackdaws. We live in what is generally a very rook friendly area, with lots of open farmland fringed by both thin and dense woodland. They're pretty much a constant presence - yet oddly unseen for all that. They make their regular patterns across the skies at dawn and again at dusk, unheralded markers of time and the seasons.
I'd made that bravado-led fatal mistake of lengthening a walk, and in the gathering gloom spotted a pathway through some headhigh gorse that I'd either ignored or not noticed before. It led down a grassy bank and on through a field - an expanse of fallow land that led away from my home. I should have just turned back, but I instead went left into this stand of oaks, towards what I knew was a fairly major road - which despite the fact I couldn't hear it, could only have been 50 or so yards away. I soon found myself enclosed beneath towering oaks, in near darkness. As I crept about, fearful of I'm not exactly sure what, I became aware of the clamour above me. A clamour which rose and rose in pitch as a stream of black shapes left the tops of the trees and joined the gathering throng in the air. It was disorienting, partly because of the volume and the pitch and swirl of the amorphous mass of black, but also because of the noise - a mixture of the baritone craaw of the rooks and the higher pitch of the garrolous jackdaws. I stood and swayed. I'd seen similar perfomances from huge flocks of starlings at West Hay on the Somerset levels - great pulsating murmurations - but there the levels at least gave a sense of perspective, you watched as if from a raised platform. This had an element of terror about it, it felt oddly filmic, like it was being projected, but projected all around me. The air was charged. As I stood transfixed, a solid mass shot up past my left elbow and lit on a branch not 5 feet above my head. I nearly stepped outside of myself in fright. What the fuck was that? How long had it been down there? I looked into the dark. It was a squat tawny owl, like some great woodland harbinger sent to judge me on my trespassing. Instead it had what I can only describe as an almighty shit, turned its head and flew off. It broke the spell. As the fluttering shadow-clamour above began it's slow settle back into the trees, I crashed my way through some undergrowth and out into the welcome open space of a field. I could see the passing lights of cars and the low hum of engines. The roost had quietened, and the owl had long gone. I carried on my way with some sense of sanity restored.
So then came the brilliant, obsessive Crow Country. Cocker's book is a slow burn. It details his family's move from urban Norwich into the Norfolk countryside, and how his coming to terms with the contours (or otherwise) of the land became entwined with the everyday comings and goings of the thousands of rooks that daily worked the fields for food and filled the sky every night on their way back to their roosts. The tracking and marking of his new 'patch', becomes inevitably about working out the behaviour of his neighbours. The book is partly so alluring because of Cocker's beautiful way of transcribing the rooks' behaviour, but also in the way he subtly works in larger themes - both in a naturalistic, ecological sense, and in a broader metaphysical sense as well. Through the rooks he comes to know the land - dredging up layers of local and geological history, and also a larger part of himself. And the book achieves this without any pretense. It just fits. It also does what all good natural history should do - it drives you out onto the land, senses sharpened.
Raven. By Masahisa Fukase
The final piece of all this was coming across the photographs of ravens by Masahisa Fukase (thanks to Sorcha for the tip). There isn't a good deal to say beyond Sean O' Hagan's excellent piece in The Observer, or this piece by Stacy Oborne. These pictures are lonely, vast and elemental - and the backstory only adds to their poignancy. Go see.
Mark Cocker's country diary on The Guardian site.
A previous M*7 entry on rooks from April 2008.
Image by Dan Morelle
It has been awful quiet in these parts. I'll confess to a certain amount of lassitude certainly, but really life has got in the way in all its prickly forms. Not least a hideous dose of uvula pustules (or tonsillitis to the school nurse) which left me feeling like I had a hedgehog nesting to the north west of my larynx. Not much fun. I did hear this cracking show on Radio 4 whist I was off though - Chris Watson's Search for the Nightingale's Song. He does seem to be everywhere at the moment (the interview in a recent issue of The Wire is really something and it's led me to TC Lethbridge, more of which another time) - and with good reason. His method seems simple and yet there is something close to perfection in his (and his equipment's) output. His recording of the nightingale is a signature occurrence - thorough, rapt and so clear and pure at times as to sound artificial.
A few years ago I was walking down by the River Test near King's Somborne. It was late April and getting very close to the arrival dates for our intake of nightingales. It was humid for April, the air clammy and dense; and one particular field, set just back from the river, was boisteros with bird song, the air full of the criss-crossings of repeating figures of trills and whistles. From what I could make out the bulk of the noise could only have been coming from two or three locations, and despite never having heard nightingales in the field before, I was convinced these had to be them. It was an intense barrage of noise, at times like extended raygun peals, at others like some cracked and slipped motorik - always fading away into a single reedy note before the next barrage began. It wasn't song so much as textile, a swarm of threads knitting the air around me. I was mesmerised.
Unsure of myself however, I spoke to a friend who worked for the RSPB. He was free and suggested we could go back to the same location and clear the matter up for certain. These could be very adroit song thrushes, after all. So back we went. It was some 10 days later and the air had cooled and thinned. The low scrub where I'd heard the singing, still leafless at this stage looked dirtier in the lessening light. There was a heavy silence, punctuated by the occasional blast from a desultory song thrush. A series of weak trills and bleeps - where were the fireworks? I was a little sheepish to say the least, and though we waited for the best part of an hour, nothing appeared. I started to think it must have been an aural hallucination, maybe I'd ingested some ergot? Then he had an idea.
At the time I was driving a Volvo 340, an utterly graceless squashed whale of a car, replete with the turning circle of an arthritic brontosaurus. Indeed so heavy was the steering that the previous owner had affixed one of those snooker ball sized black knobs (hereafter to be called the knob of joy) to the steering wheel to help him get the fucker round car parks and the like. I hadn't removed it. My mate, for his job (so he says) happened to have all four CDs of Jean C. Roche's monumental All the Bird Songs of Britain and Europe ('396 chants en 4 CDs') on his iPod and we figured if we could get the car close enough to the field and play the iPod through the car's (frankly superb) stereo we might be able to lure the birds from whence they may have fled. I pictured us huddled safe inside the car whilst hordes of these light brown beauties danced across the thick metal roof... So there we are, furtively pulling up to a gate, throwing the doors wide open pouring the recorded psychobabble of the nightingale into the milky light of evening. We pause it frequently, partly out of embarrassment, partly to hear if our sonic fiction is having any effect? The air remains shallow of song. We turn it up as loud as we dare - loud enough to scare a fallow deer that had been sheltering in an adjacent field. It must have thought this was the nightingale apocalypse. We try for a full five minutes before shame and bemusement takes hold. Nothing. Not even a rasping blackbird.
I'll never know if they were nightingales buried in that low thorny scrub. Something tells me they were and that maybe they'd been spooked, or were just passing through to other known haunts. Whatever their reasons, they'd flown and to this day I've still not heard a nightingale sing in the wild. Thankfully, I have Chris Watson to listen for me.
Download: Chris Watson - The Hunt for the Nightingale's Song
This wee incident happened a few years ago, but last night walking across a field of young cows the whole incident came back so vividly I thought I'd share it.
I went for a walk in Durley yesterday, which despite its rather dull sounding name is a secret little corner of Hampshire that is almost too perfectly English and beautiful for its own good. William Cobbett called it 'certainly one of the most obscure villages in this whole kingdom'. Obscure in the true sense of hidden, cut off. And then some. With demonic cows.
I'd just emerged from a wooded hillside above the upper reaches of the Hamble River, all marsh and bluebells, into a meadow; I was about halfway across when I noticed that the cows I'd clocked on the way in where running my way, fast. The one in the lead was a young black thing, with a fair set of horns on it, and looked intent on running me down. I did the obvious thing and started backing away but it just kept on coming so I raised my arms and started bellowing at it (all the time, thinking, 'grab its ring'): it pulled up short and just stared at me. Meanwhile the rest of the herd had caught up and were lumbering up, careening into each other, mounting each other, generally looking chaotic. I started to back off and they followed so I charged them, shouting: they'd back off, but one would always resume interest so they just kept getting closer. I turned to identify an escape route and saw a gate behind me that I could leap...
Now, to my mind, cow’s aren’t dangerous as such, they're more just affectless somehow, with a latent, abstract potential for horrible damage. You don't get malice with cows, just a sort of dumb, belligerent interest. But all the while, you do wonder if there isn’t an uprising in there somewhere, all those years of disgusting servitude just bubbling away waiting to boil over. If they wanted too, surely they could; I mean, Christ, that's a ton of animal.
As I backed toward the gate, they just kept coming on in a kind of demonic v-shape: a few at the head most intent, the others drawn on, living the herd mentality. I held my bag above my head and charged one more time (what a warrior: man-bag in hand, screaming like a girl steaming into a docile bovine crowd, hardly William Wallace), then turned and bolted for the gate. I could hear the ground pounding behind me and sensed the hot mineral breath on the back of my neck. I vaulted the gate (yes, vaulted). As I landed there was a great clatter as the head of the pack battered into the gate. As I landed there was a horrible moment when I thought they'd got through, but thankfully they hadn’t - there was just a line of beasts, watching me from behind the gate, now spreading along the line of the fence. Thank god for barbed wire.
I was on a patch of land that was half wet woodland marsh, half farmland. What was immediately obvious was that I couldn’t go down, as it were, because that was flood plain for the river it looked like knee deep bog; to my left was a tangled mess of bog and scrub; right wasn’t an option as it was more bog and scrub and only lead the way I'd come; ahead was a steaming herd of cattle. They were just standing there, gawping, and obviously going nowhere. After sitting on a rock for a bit, mildly panicking, it was obvious that I'd have to go left and try and get through the bog/scrub. It was a torturous affair, all low brambles and ankle deep, sucking mud. All the while the cows were following my progress along the fence, lowing gently. I eventually reached the field boundary and all I needed to negotiate was a fallen tree that was matted with brambles and a barbed wire fence. I was triumphant and started threatening the beasts with all sorts of torments: I was coming back with a gun, with an axe, with a steak knife. As I leapt off the tree into the neighbouring field whooping with a rare kind of joy I gave the entire herd the two fingered salute and turned away.
As I turned away, I noticed that the field I was now in, whilst obviously being adjacent to the one with the cows in, was also more intimately associated. By a gate. That was open. I had an awful moment of realisation, a sort of disbelieving wrenching horror: this was destiny, I was to be made to pay for all the sirloin I'd savaged in the past, all that rump, topside; I was the sacrifice, the burnt offering, to ease the guilt of mankind - this had been ordained, I couldn’t escape. Looking frantically about, I was bound by the river on the left and a dense hawthorn hedge on the right. The opposite side of the field seemed many miles off. Behind there was a diabolic horde thirsty for penitent blood. It was over.
They could see me through the hedge and were trying to get through; noses appearing, feet appearing. As I backed away, they were moving along the boundary hedge, toward the gate, but quite obviously hadn't noticed it, or hadn’t put two and two together that it was a way through... My slow backing off soon turned into a quick stroll, which soon became a frantic scrambling run, uphill towards a distant stile, a beacon of safety. As I ran, wheezing like a consumptive, I'd risk the occasional glance over my shoulder, to see that they were no nearer working out the concept of gate, no nearer. I reached the stile. They hadn’t even got into the field yet. I stood statued on the stile for a bit, watching their progress, still a bit stunned. The sun had become a hanging orange ball by now, and there was a purple, washed look to everything. I felt oddly serene, ecstatic even. I dropped off the stile into a lane. As I headed up the cooling tarmac, I glanced into the field and noticed that the cows had found their way through the gate and where heading over, the herd as one, morphing and mutating, fluid. There was no intent there now though; I was out of sight, forgotten. Free to go.
The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian has a thing about trees. Can’t stop looking at them. I’ve been abroad with him when he’s been in rapture over an avenue of pine tress. ‘Look at them, Bill,’ he’d say. ‘Aren’t they beautiful! People don’t appreciate beauty these days. They look at everything but they don’t really see. Who really looks at trees and sees their shapes and colours? They’re magic! That’s what it’s all about! - Bill Clough talking about his brother, Brian.
Ah now, this is the stuff - a blog dedicated to biographies of great British trees. Little more needs to be said. Go see.