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Monday, 2 September 2013

Blog moving to new site

Dear loyal followers, 

I'm no longer going to update this blog but instead everything has moved to my website at www.colin-williams.com. Just click on the blog link in the menu bar. This site will remain up and I've moved some of the Greatest Hits across but otherwise all my blog posts will be on the website. As always, thanks for following.

Friday, 26 July 2013

In the low edges

On Lundy a few years ago we watched kestrels in the strong island wind, amplified by the steep cliffs. This bird, a familiar friend seen almost every day hovering above the field margins was now something different. It had eschewed its normal movements in favour of something much showier. It had put aside the work-a-day drudgery of simply hovering – itself an act fit to incite wonder - and had instead replaced it with carving arcs up, down, through and across the column of air resting against the cliffs. I pictured Euclid, or the designers of aircraft desperately attempting to transcribe some pattern from the flight. I saw them, bent over their desks frantically scribbling and marking, trying to translate the kestrel’s flight curves into a line whose formulae can be plotted but who quickly give up. It’s no good: the bird is x against y against everywhere. Scrabbling to find some familiar way to relate to the shapes being sliced into the empty air I myself was left wanting, a completely blank page left in my notebook. Besides, the air here wasn’t empty; it was thick with a thousand invisible wires and rails on which the kestrel attached and detached itself at will.

Perhaps aside from hearing the breath of a surfacing whale – an experience I’ve had and written about hundreds of times – the kestrel delivered up the perfect example of the decided otherness of nature. That word, ‘otherness’ is one that’s been used by many better writers before me but it does the job well. It defines for us the space that lies between humans and the rest of nature and, more especially, it speaks of the space that we’re constantly trying to close when we think, speak and write about it.  

I sometimes work in desperation trying to fill that space with words. Upon being moved to do so I make hurried attempts to bring some meaning to the evident beauty of the natural world. But that is a mistake. The fact is that Kestrel will at some point fail whether through its own errors or the capricious nature of nature. Something will bring its bones and sinews low. It will starve or become injured or be predated or all of those things. Down in the low edges of the fields and barns is where the truth lies. Scattered here and there are the bones of those things whose energies have almost all been reabsorbed into the world. The meat has been stripped by the predator, the last tendons have rotted off and all that’s left is the bright bones. Therefore, it isn’t sentimentality that drives the art - nature is by its definition harsh and hard-bitten and the best writers recognise that.  Nor is it the worship of a bucolic or pastoral ideal that doesn’t exist. It is, for me at the very least, a drive to codify a language, a vocabulary that illuminates as many truths about us as it does about nature. It is the impermanent record of change, contest and response. 

I’ve preserved that blank page in my notebook. I haven’t used it for anything else. Instead, I’ve left it there as a reminder that there’s sometimes little we can add.  

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Crossing


We were finally crossing the Romanian Danube on a flat-bottomed car ferry.

As we we made our way across the water we spread the maps out on the bonnet of the car and looked carefully for the crossing point. Once we were over we would have to find our way to the Black Sea and we had already been lost that day amongst unpaved roads and two-street villages. These were small communities, each home a family centre with its vine and carefully tended onion plots and we – good naturedly - had been held up behind a wedding procession, the hems of the beaming bride’s dress coloured by the dust on the roads.  But now the river, delivering a cool breeze, was suddenly there as a welcome marker, a flowing point of reference. It was finally possible to rest ourselves after the long, hot and dusty summer drive during which we’d passed whip snakes basking on the roads and, in a verge of long grass, the body of a dead man.

In glorious contrast to the lazy summer drone of the farmlands the crossing point was active with travellers going backward and forward to the coastal resorts for seasonal work or pleasure: gamblers, dancers, sun seekers, bar staff, casual labour, musicians, people bathing in the river and itinerant farm workers all of them creating a cloud of dust down by the edge of the water. It was wonderfully noisy. I had walked over to the slipway while we waited to board just to get some peace and respite from the crippling heat and looked downstream. Down there somewhere the river would eventually unwind and fray out into its own fertile delta.

We drove over the knocking board ramp and while the boat thump-thumped across the river we got talking to a Russian family who had driven down through Moldova and down the coast to see their family in Bulgaria. “It’s long but good” he had said with both resignation and a happy weariness. I got the sense that this river crossroads was an important marker point in their journey south.  After that, we passed the rest of the crossing in silence, enjoying the space between drives.

That was over a decade ago.

Now, on reflection, I’ve passed over a million border crossings like this: Places where one point in my journey meets another.  In this case it was a literal crossing point but in other cases it’s been standing on the liminal ribbon between land and water; walking a ridge between grass and space; the velvet hour between night and day; the hard edge between bright sun and the dark of the pine plantations; floating face down just before a slow dive into water. These are good places to cross. Always outside, always nothing between me and the earth, these are the spaces in which I feel I can finally meet myself properly. I can tick off those moments where my defences are let down and there is an easy necessity of silence, a seeming surplus of time. I like these moments. They are the reminders that I’m still travelling.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Honest Nature



The scene was quite beautiful. Freezing fog cloaked the park which in turn was surrounded by the yellow stone buildings of the ancient town which were, in places, highlighted by the sodium flare of the streetlights. The trees were black outlines in the grey. I was walking with a  friend, enjoying the muffled stillness invoked by the dense fog, that thrill of being in a new place and the darkness. As we walked under the lime trees a classroom memory was very suddenly stirred as an icy droplet found its way into the small gap between collar and neck. The stillness was shattered.  My shout, partly triumphant, part surprised was – almost – involuntary.

“Fog drip!”  

The friend, in all ways a calm and meditative soul, looked at me in alarm as up until this point we had been walking in relative silence. Seeing his confusion I quickly followed up with a clear and concise explanation of why I had just shouted these two words:

“Mr Hoyle…Geography.”

This, bizarrely, did not satisfy his curiosity and I had to explain that whilst being taught the many types of precipitation by the irrascible Mr Hoyle in a chalky sixth form classroom he had expounded on the principle of Fog Drip, proclaiming that many people denied it’s existence as a form of precipitation. In short, fog condenses onto the branches of trees and then drips off. Many people might deny it but here it was in all its freezing glory. Here was nature, making itself felt, daring me to deny it. I wasn’t observing it or noticing it or photographing it or writing about it. Nature was pushing an icy stream down my spine.

I like that idea very much, that nature happens to us. It’s a fine line though. For much of the time we are the observer. We can see nature happening but it’s almost always in the past tense, over as quickly as it began. But sometimes, there is the sudden engagement of an unexpected sense and the line is crossed: the stinging bite of an ant, the streaming of the eyes when the spade bites into a buried horse radish or the involuntary shrinking of the skin and quickening of pulse that comes with the sudden knowledge that a predator or something you do not care to brush against is very, uncomfortably close. This is nature happening to us. We are acted upon as another living thing instead of carefully controlling our choice of natural experience. It is quick, it is inclusive, it is nature at its most honest. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Into the Silent Planet


The sun has come again and the last of the snows have melted in last night's rain. With that comes the chance to think about winter. Winter didn't feature much in art before the late sixteenth century and according to one source this is because before that time, winter was just too hard. It was only after we became better at coping with its effects that we had the luxury of observing it. Before that, we were too busy just surviving it. It now feels as if I have chance to think more about it now that the snow - that most tangible sign of winter - is gone. 

During the snows the activities of wild things were everywhere. At the feeders the to-ing and fro-ing was dizzying. On the piles of apples on the banks the winter thrushes were gorging themselves on any exposed surface of fruit. And in the open fields the fox, normally sly and edgy in his movements, loped across open ground driven by urgency and desperation. 

In thinking about the human relationship with the extreme seasons I like the idea that what is now the developed world was once governed by them. We ran, worked, foraged, prepared, farmed, played and lived to the beat of the seasons and none other. This was no different in the farms and the fields than it was in the cities and towns and with that must have come an acute awareness of how every other animal that walked the world felt at the coldest, most difficult times. 

The 1909 painting Lone Tenement by the New York artist George Bellows is a reminder of this. Any writer on the natural world worth their word count would dismiss out of hand any difference between the streets and the fields as negligible when it comes to describing our response to nature. Lone Tenement shows this just as clearly as any image depicting a rural scene where nature is supposed to be closer. That might be true in summer but winter changes that. It levels the playing field. 

In the image the building of the painting's title looms largest but it is the urgent and furtive nature of the figures in the bottom left that draw the eye. It is clearly a winter harder than stone on the east river. Amongst the tanneries, slaughter houses, breweries, wharves and warehouses they seek warmth. They might live in the city but they're aware of nature alright. They have to be. They are being slowly broken by it. 

I have no wish to revisit those days. I would hope the days are gone of developing a dangerous nostalgia for an environment where children were damned to the same iron-hard existence as their parents. Nonetheless we have lost an awareness, an empathy. In the hardest of winter moments we've lost the thought and feeling that other flesh is struggling just as we are. Our genetic memory on this is slightly faded now, reduced to decision making on whether to get in the car or not. 

For many of us winter is no longer be a thing to be feared but the complete opposite may be to give up too easily a sense of the value of what lies beneath the snow. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

A Gyrfalcon for a King



Reposting this as it seems to have gotten lost over the years...

“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave” – The Boke of St Albans, 1486. 

There are some experiences, which are in retrospect even more powerful, where the solitude, the landscape, the time of day, the wildlife and any amount of other emotional and physical variables (perhaps my own state of mind?) combine to create something affecting and physical. And it was in Iceland that I saw her. The Gyrfalcon. The King’s bird. 

I didn’t see her until she was upon me. I was sitting deep down beneath a small volcanic cliff amongst the boulders sloping down to a shingle beach into the sea. Nearby, the carcass of a juvenile killer whale gave the air a taste and in the bay the head of grey seal watched the shore as if keeping a watchful eye over the sleeping but still lethal orca, it’s dorsal fin clearly visible as it lay on the beach. Little auks were whirring close over the surface of the water and behind me the silent hulk of the volcano, covered in cloud. 

And then, from my left, just a few metres away, she came. Over the edge of the small cliff where the peaty turf hung in ribbons over the rock. She was not alone. Behind her trailed a ragged streamer of mobbing birds; wheatear, oyster catcher and a purple sandpiper. At least five of them testing their will and speed against the gyrfalcon. Amongst the melee she seemed almost motionlessly calm, beating her powerful way in slow motion. The feeling of muscular and taut control was pervasive, a visceral and tangible presence. She moved so perfectly that she could have been on a rail. 

She passed over my head and over the opposing cliff bank before disappearing over the volcanic grassland pitted with sink holes and caves. I stood up to climb the bank but was not able to see her as her speed had already taken her behind some upstanding volcanic rocks. And then, just as a red sky gives away the presence of an invisible sun, I knew she was there, but I couldn’t see her. I saw a sign of her presence, a ripple of clamour in the sky where she had passed.She had scythed over the surface of the ground putting waders and other birds up and now all that was left was a pair of merlin climbing and stooping down to a spot that was still invisible to me. She was there. 

I walked over the rough ground until I could see her and, thinking that my sudden and intermittent appearances over the tussocks and mounds would scare her, I sat and watched from a distance. But soon I pressed on to get closer. She sat, seemingly impervious to the screeching of the merlins, at the very top of a tall, grass covered volcanic stone. The merlins shyed away from my presence long before the falcon who looked at me with cool and quick precision. At that moment the Gyrfalcon was absolutely in its landscape, full of sorrowful tundric beauty. I watched her for few heavy minutes before she dropped away from the edge and circled around to my right, disappearing behind the seaward cliffs. 

The thrill of the encounter passed, I was left lying where she’d left me, looking up at a grey sky. But her presence had tied me into that moment and that place. The presence of the living animal had forced me to take a fresh view of the landscape and my place in it. This is what it means to be human. As an animal in the landscape we can be observer or particpant. But to be separated from it? To move around in our own world instead of the one we’re already a part of, to live impervious to the potential effect on us of our natural environment, is a form of surrender; a self-imposed exile which is ultimately found lacking, lonely and fruitless.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Clockwork Jackdaws

 
The jackdaws come like clockwork. They don’t come at a given time, it is a clockwork the rhythms of which change with the year because they come at the moment the light is correct; it is just as the prinicpality of the sky is being rubbed at by the sun.
 
I stand in the long grass of the primrose banks behind the house waiting patiently in the half darkness. I can always look in the same direction because they always come from the north and fly directly south over the roof towards the chalk downs. It starts with the faint ponging of their calls and the straggling scouts appear over the tops of the triangular stand of oaks and scots pine that point south like an arrow head. Then more infantry appear until a flock of thousands is catapulting themselves over my head.
 
Their pace is urgent and direct. There is no deviation, frolicking, cartwheeling or gamboling chases that typify their species during the height of the day. Their calls are incessant and, it seems, joyous. The sound is defiant of the bucolic dawn chorus that will, as the year draws on, be in full swing by the time the jackdaws come. But they will continue to be the chanting football crowd answering the refined cadenzas of the willow warblers, whitethroats and blackcaps, their sheer numbers being in their favour.
 
Their appearance is a morning talisman for me now. When they have passed over and the last stragglers have disappeared as smudges against the hillside I can walk back to the house content that the day has started. In the moments that they pass overhead I enjoy that an exchange has been made, that we have somehow shared a greeting and that I have seen them safely across. The birds circumscribe a moment when I know that all is normal and as it should be; the world has made one more turn. Maybe there’ll be one morning when I actually do call out a greeting, of course checking that no-one’s watching. Until then, just as you can be on nodding terms with a person you always see on your journey to work but whose name or circumstances you never learn, the fact they’re there at the right place at the right time is enough.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Latest on-line Publications

Haven't been especially helpful at keeping you, my loyal followers, up to date but here are two recent on-line publications

Guest blog at the wonderful Earthlines Magazine's on-line Review pages

http://earthlinesreview.org/2012/10/25/guest-post-sea-voices-by-colin-williams/

And a piece for travel company eDreams about responsible Whale Watching

http://blog.edreams.com/a-guide-to-whale-watching-the-dos-and-donts/

Hope you enjoy them...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Clash and the Titan


Hearing properly for the first time London Calling by The Clash was one of those life-defining moments. I don’t wish to exaggerate but I imagine the unveiling of Picasso’s Guernica was but a ripple in the artistic pond compared to what this record meant (and means) to me: Mick Jones’ atom bomb guitar punctuating Joe Strummer’s desperate howls. I was, and I mean this quite literally, transfixed with every pulsing, sweating, sneering word and note. If He played in a band, this is what God sounded like when He brought His A-game.

Looking back on the experience with hindsight, I always knew this was what music was supposed to sound like. Before the needle even rested in the groove I carried a genetic imprint in my fibres of what would happen to all of my endorphins, hair follicles and cells when music was at its best and most affecting. But until that moment, it was largely a matter of faith, kept alive by what history has proved to be a pretty tasty collection of my Father’s records. Records like London Calling turned me into a true believer.

Seeing a whale for the first time brought about much the same crisis of physiology and mental instability. Despite being steeped in affection for the wild and wild things from an early age this was a piece of blubbery, evolutionary liveliness on a scale which was unlike anything I’d experienced before. The animal, a fin whale in this case, was breathing, stinking and swooshing just a few yards away from me and I was suddenly plunged into a depth of feeling for which I was quite unprepared.

Up until that point, I had seen endless hours of footage and countless photographs: I knew what whales did, how they moved, what they looked like, that there were species that seemed impossibly strange, that they made noises and leapt and breached and swirled and blew. I knew all of that. But seeing the thing… that was a needle dropped on a very deep groove indeed.

Since then I have seen thousands of cetaceans. It would be cool and detached of me to say that the experience of that first whale is dimmed slightly in the light of the sheer volume of blubber I’ve observed since. But that would be a fabrication: Much like the first listen of that record it wasn’t a one-off high but instead acted as an elevator of everything after that; It was a new lens through which I could view everything else rather than a temporary hit. Because of that, my experiences around whales and dolphins since then have built in a slow-burning intensity and never, but never, get boring.

And years after that first listen, I met Mick Jones, guitarist on that beautiful mess that is London Calling. He had just come off stage at an event which I was involved in and in the backstage bustle he looked exhausted but elated after a barnstorming set with his band of the time, Big Audio Dynamite. Always intending to play the cool and reluctant observer it was inevitable that this fa├žade would crumble in the presence of yer man. He was with an eye-wateringly beautiful woman but I barely noticed the poor girl as I shambled up to him and proffered a hand. He was, of course, the quintessential rock n’ roll gent: pleasant, affable, self deprecating and patiently putting up with my ridiculous questions before autographing a scrap of paper and leaving me beaming.

Like I said, some things do not diminish with the passage of time. I, and my pleasures in life, will age well having been gilded somehow. Because whales (and The Clash) can do that.