We usually hear the jackdaws some ten minutes or so before sunrise: jack, jack, jack, jack, and then the great silence descends for a while. The rooks chuck the odd aark into the mix, but it tends to get lost amid the jackdaw vocals. Once they have completed their flypast, it is a while before you notice any other birdsong. Gradually it seems to return, and then you realise it was there all along, but it was lost beneath the chorus of cacophonous corvids and still sounds muted once they are gone.
Jackdaws and rooks commonly form mixed flocks. Small groups of them tend to flit through here throughout the day, although never so vocally as at sunrise or sunset. At times, I have watched them heading towards the open countryside away to the east a little before sunset – small groups coming from different directions to the area where they tend to congregate, and from where they will then all fly off in a single flock to their roost together in an area of woodland at dusk.
It was another thick frost this morning, and then a red, red sky as though it was all afire, the clouds like volcanic effusions drifting across, by which time the rooks and jackdaws had scattered to their trees and roofs. Then the sky yellowed with the promise of snow, or did it only look that way because I was aware that was the forecast? When I go out into the back garden to scatter the coffee grounds, the chill of the air in my nostrils makes me think I can smell snow.
On time, the snow arrives, although it has barely reached the ground before melting, and quickly turns to sleet. While it is snowing, there is a brightness outside, even under the dark clouds, but once it turns to sleet, it somehow darkens and just becomes a little more miserable. As I look out of the window now, I see the wind picking up, a little thin sleet falling, and a uniformly grey sky.
This arrived at the beginning of the week: the new CD from Belbury Poly on Ghost Box Records. I listened to the podcast of Uncanny Landscapes #5 interviewing Jim Jupp (The Belbury Poly) back in September, and had been meaning to buy this since then. Inspired by British myth and legend, The Gone Away is essentially ambient electronic music. One review has it: …this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been listening to it for much of the week.
I finished re-reading Beowulf, the version translated by Seamus Heaney who is a poet I much admire. Most people know the story, or at least know that Beowulf is a great warrior who fights and kills the monster Grendel in what we think of as Anglo-Saxon times, although the story is somewhat more complex than that. I have read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry over the years, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by it. There is very little of it surviving – if it was ever written down at all, it has been largely lost – and what there is dates from the end of that period, when the Saxons had been converted to Christianity. This means it is frequently a strange and jarring combination of bloodthirsty adventure and po-faced sermonising. Fortunately, Beowulf largely escapes the latter, and Seamus Heaney’s translation is both beautiful and dark.
And, by strange coincidence, on my previous post (Winter – 3)Greg posted a comment mentioning Beowulf, although he could not know I had finished reading it the previous day.
But now I’m reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but knew I needed to immerse myself in it more slowly. This time around, I began it in the spring and only got halfway through, for some reason really struggling with it. But I’ve picked it up again and now I’m finding it much easier going. Set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is a murder mystery, love story and discussion on the power of art, with religion and intrigue chucked in for good measure.
It’s been a bit of a grey week, weather-wise, although we’ve had the odd spell of sunny weather. Yesterday we had a dodging-the-showers walk over the nearby common, and spent a while mulling over the age of this oak. I reckoned it might be three hundred to three hundred and fifty years old, while Sabina plumped for five hundred.
In the summer, I measured its girth at head height, and made it approximately six metres. The various ‘ready reckoners’ one comes across would suggest from this the age is around four hundred years, making allowances for factors such as the climate around here and its position in relation to the rest of the geography of the area, but this tree seems in unusually good condition for one that age. It’s possible, of course. Whatever age it is, though, it’s a mighty bugger.
My creative writing this week, what there was of it, was all revision of A Good Place. I’m getting there slowly, even if it does seem to be taking an age. How do some writers manage to dash off a couple of books a year, for heaven’s sake? Do they not have lives?
And my next post? My final post on winter. We’re approaching Christmas, are we not? So a little something seasonal. In a sort of Neolithic way…
It’s beginning to feel both as though autumn has been with us forever, and that it is especially reluctant to leave us, this year.
This year has been a mast year; the trees and bushes have been laden with prodigious quantities of nuts and berries. The hawthorns, especially, seem to be weighed down with berries, and we have gathered large quantities of nuts from the hazel in our garden. There are so many acorns beneath the oaks nearby that there is a thick, continuous, crunchy, carpet of them underfoot. Traditionally, this has been said to indicate a harsh winter ahead, although how the trees and bushes are meant to work this out when we have no idea what the weather will be then, heaven only knows.
What it really indicates, of course, is that the climatic conditions have been such throughout the year that these trees and bushes have successfully produced their large crops. Nothing to do with what will come along later.
On the other hand, the leaves have held onto their greens for longer than usual and only turned late, and still seem most reluctant to fall. It has taken the determined efforts of a few strong winds just to remove about half of them. Certainly, around my part of Britain, anyway.
It is not cold. There are no signs of a proper winter chill approaching, with the long-range weather forecast contenting itself with predictions of the occasional cold spell in the next month, which takes us through to mid-December. In the garden the grass and many of our other plants are still engaged in that crazy autumn growth spurt.
Of course, it was never unusual for November to be wet and mild, and we may yet have a biting cold winter, although I wouldn’t bet on it. It is a long, long time since we have had a winter like that in these parts. In my lifetime, only the winters of 1963 and 1978/79 really stand out as being extremely harsh, although a few others have had shorter periods of cold and snow. The expectation for winter around here now is that it will just be chilly and wet. I think only once in the last six or seven years have we had more than just the odd flurry of snow; that was from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ a couple of years ago, and even that only lasted a few days.
We seem to have lost winter somewhere along the way, which sounds very careless of us.
In fact, that is quite a good way of describing it.
You don’t need me to tell you we have been careless in the way we have interacted with nature, the result being our world is heating up dangerously. And in our part of the world, this has led to hotter, drier, summers and milder, wetter, winters. There has been a notable increase in destructive flooding events. Downpours are frequently very heavy and long-lasting. Rather than being spread out through the month, we may get an entire month’s worth of rain in less than a day. Summers, conversely, have become very dry.
This is absolutely nothing to the extreme climate conditions suffered by millions of others in other parts of the world, but it helps to bring it home to us that the Climate Emergency is real, and it is happening. With everything else happening in the world at the moment, this seems to have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media for the last six months.
Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.
Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.
I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.
So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.
Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.
And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.
What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.
Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.
It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.
The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.
Inhospitable deserts. High mountain passes. Hills or moorland in thick, blanketing fog or sudden treacherous snowfall.
A situation in which I test my skills and resilience to the limit, aware of the consequences of a miscalculation or of taking my eye off the ball for too long. Certainly not a case of me fightingagainst the desert, or the mountain, because it’s not a battle. I have no need to ‘conquer’ anything, merely to respectfully request safe passage.
At the moment I have to accept second best, walking in woodlands near my home. At least there are fewer people around while it is raining, although those who are include a posse of shrieking children – honestly, where are the wolves and bears when you need them? Two hundred years ago in Britain children would either have avoided all but the lightest of woodland, or passed through as silently as possible. Although the bears and wolves were long gone by then, the children would have been raised on a diet of nursery stories that taught them the dangers of venturing into wild places, the remnants of very necessary advice from those earlier times when careless children frequently got eaten.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love these woodlands, and am very grateful I can get to them easily. Within them, for example, is this wonderful grove of oak trees. The oaks are not particularly old, probably around two hundred years I would imagine, but are stunningly beautiful. Some have branches thick with moss, all have wonderfully sculpted bark and all are home to huge numbers of creatures.
Already one or two have a limb dropping to the ground for extra stability. And the grove as an ecosystem within the wider woodland is perfect – each tree is around twenty five meters from its neighbours, which appears perfect when I look at the size of the canopy of each tree: its branches just about meet the branches of its neighbours, but there is no sense of their growth being restricted. I wonder whether this is chance, the result of long centuries of naturally evolving woodland – when one tree dies and eventually falls, that newly-opened space exploited by another seedling, or perhaps intelligent planting by a long-forgotten landowner?
Where the woods are managed, especially the cutting in those areas where the holly is spreading in dense swathes crowding out all other growth, there are stacks of cut logs and branches exploited by children (shrieking or otherwise) to make dens. None of them would keep out the weather, but that’s not really their point. What I particularly like about them, other than it’s good to find children who want to play in this environment, rather than just sit in front of a screen, is most of these dens end up resembling the skeleton of some fantastic monster. And although that hardly turns these woods into a wilderness, it does give them just the faintest frisson of excitement, especially in the gloom.
And reminds me I want to be in the wilderness…
As is basic human nature, of course, the longer the restrictions (either imposed or of my own choosing) go on, the more I yearn for that wilderness.
I’m posting this poem again, as it rather illustrates what I’ve personally found particularly frustrating during the recent lockdown. We can go for longer walks now, it is true, but that’s still not the same.
If I could just wave a wand,
I would wander the world.
With my notebook in hand,
And a bag on my back.
I would sleep under hedges,
In hotels and haylofts.
Drink beers under trees,
And eat cheese on the moor.
I’d watch clouds over hilltops,
And boats on the ocean.
Shapes and shadows at sunset,
A moon with a view.
And I’d write trivial poems
Of snowfall and sunlight,
Birds singing at dawn
And the sounds of a stream.
There’s the lure of a skyline,
And skylarks above me,
Wine and woodsmoke my welcome,
At the end of the day.
To travel, to journey,
There’s magic in wandering
Over moorland and downland,
Through woods and through fields.
The world’s full of wonders
All waiting for wanderers.
Let me follow these paths
For as long as I can.
The poem can be found in my collection The Night Bus, which is available here. should your interest have been piqued by this…
A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.
As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.
Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.
Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.
‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.
Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk
It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.
And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.
My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.
I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.
There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…
The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.
Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).
I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.
I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.
And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.
This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.