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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.


Friday, 24 August 2012

In my Counterfeit Paradise


There has been an extraordinary series broadcast by the BBC in recent weeks called Unnatural Histories. The programmes challenge the notion that our most dearly cherished perceptions of wild, untamed landscapes such as Yellowstone and the Amazon are not as virginal as they appear; that their very presence and shape is rooted in their historical relationship with human beings: These now empty wildernesses were once, and until relatively recently, teeming with people. The near-river Amazon bason, for example, had an estimated pre-Columbian population of 5.5 million people according to the best archeological and anthropological evidence.

It is of course churlish to compare the environmental impact of these historical populations to the sort of destruction we seem to effortlessly wreak upon these places in modern times. Even 5 million people living in harmony with the landscape would not have nearly the effect a few hundred people with chainsaws and tarmac in this century.

One particularly unsettling historical fact that the programme makers explored was the 18th and 19th century european concept of ‘the sublime’. This was, to all intents and purposes, a self-fulfilling spritual journey embarked upon by rich patrons of the arts: The wild, untamed and untameable landscape, with all of its natural inhabitants was a place in which one could be closest to God and His original blueprint for the earth. They flooded in to experience the sublime by being as close as possible to nature and, even better, capture it on canvas. The problem was, this required the absence of human interference and, in extreme cases, the absence of predators. Benign herbivores were, it was deemed, more befitting such a scene and artificially creating such sublime conditions was something we used to be quite comfortable with. The eradication of predators to produce something more ‘Godly’. The irony of this does not need to be pointed out.

Just how far is humankind prepared to go to better understand his relationship with not only the way the land looks now, but how it once looked? There are some obvious and laudable reasons why the return of a place to ‘how it once was’ is the right thing to do. There are some equally tense reasons why the constant interplay of man and nature should be a thing that continues and, in some cases, encouraged.

I’m as sure about this as I can be about anything. The very place I was raised, the fenland of East Anglia, is as it is because man was and is there. And we need to move on and accept that. Living in and being part of these unnatural natural landscapes should, as Richard Mabey neatly puts it, now be part of a ‘post-colonial’ view of nature and the best we can hope for is that our behaviour towards them is typified by that view.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What isn't like the sea?



The late Victorian and Edwardian periods saw the explosion of a new phenomenon: The holiday. These holiday entitlements, normally no more than a single week and negotiated locally by unions meant that the workers and their families needed somewhere to go. In many cases the workers were escaping the industrial north and the place they chose to spend their week of freedom became the coast. The same coast that had been there, undiscovered by the working class traveller for millenia. What they turned it into was the seaside, a distinctly eighteenth and nineteenth century invention. In many cases, this was a case of proximity and cost both of which worked in the favour of the mill cities and the average wage. They escaped to the ‘pleasure palaces’ as the contemporary journalist GR Sims described them.

It is interesting that the escapism they craved most was delivered by the sea. The sea became emblamatic of being the furthest away from the grime, the soot and the industrial conditions of their working lives. Professor John Walton said that “all these perceptions reflected the 'liminal' nature of the seaside as gateway between land and sea, culture and nature, civilised constraint and liberated hedonism. The spirit of carnival bubbled close to the surface, threatening and promising to turn the world 'upside down' as the holiday atmosphere stimulated the latent fun, laughter and suspension of inhibitions”. That’s what the sea meant to us.

So where does that leave us in 2012? Is the sea still perceived as the ultimate place of escape? A quick google search reveals the following are ‘…like the sea’: some girls’ eyes, love, women, men, knowledge, time, emotions, democracy and my heart. The ocean remains the ultimate metaphor for human frailty and endeavour.

So how do we view the ocean? Is it simply a map of trade routes or an obstacle to be gotten over while we chip away at the size of the planet, desperate to make it that little bit smaller? It’s true; travel in the 21st century rarely includes the sea passage. The ocean itself is less a place to escape to but instead a place that is either jumping-off point or barrier.

But in the eyes of some it is still a destination in itself. It is a place where the best encounters with ourselves and the planet’s most impressive creatures still occur. What’s more, they can occur nowhere else and John Masefield was compelled: He must down to the seas again. The boundary line between coast and ocean remains a charged border and the Norfolk poet Jay Appleton called his coastal landscape an “encounter with infinity”. Infinite in volume or not, the sea’s ability to be infinite in its capacity to move is unchallenged by other mediums.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

It's only rock and roll but I lek it


As a student of the natural sciences you get drilled into you the things that drive life along. You learn quickly about the requirements of life and these needs form an indelible list in your mind as you categorise every behaviour under these several umbrellas: Safety, Food, Reproduction. And in the gloaming of a pre-dawn upland pine forest in North Wales I had volunteered myself for an experiment upon the importance of the last of these. I was indulging in a rare slice of primaeval voyeurism: I was going to watch black grouse do the dance of love.

I had been told exactly where to go and, knowing well the nature of such things, I had steeled myself to be there at around 5.30 in the morning to walk the mile or so in the gloom to the lek. As I began my walk through the black forest I found myself, torch in hand, completely alone. Not another living soul was close by which was just as well because I’m fairly sure I wasn’t supposed to be there. This presented several unmissable opportunities.

Number 1: Enjoy the silence
Nothing really touches the silence that befalls the world before it wakes up and if that can be enjoyed with the scent of pine needles assaulting your nostrils then so much the better. Yes, there are the nocturnal churrings and shufflings of various creatures but the usual human accompaniment is gloriously absent. There was a terrific article in the New York Times recently that listed the top places to go in the United States if you’d like to enjoy some silence (bang goes the silence in those places, then.) But articles like that speak of a tragic loss of something when it means special excursions in a noisy machine have to be planned in order to stop hearing the things we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with.

Number 2: I could practise my impressions of other animals unselfconciously and very loudly
So out came the little owl, green woodpecker, a grunting badger, a barking fox and my renowned red deer bellow. This last one was accompanied by bulging eyes, knitted brow and testosterone fuelled stance. Oh yes, I was serious about finding a mate.  This made me laugh. Long and loud.

Number 3: I could let the landscape and the birds do the talking
Under normal circumstances I would be with other people, joking, laughing, perhaps leading them. But now, as I reached the edge of the mature forest and it gave way to short pines, heather moors and rough yellow grass, the sun was inching up and the principality of the sky light enough to backlight the early morning mists. Just above the mists, floating on disconnected pine tops, songbirds began to appear, taking advantage of the clear stillness to really let go on their best chops, the warm-up acts for the full dawn chorus. 

And so there I sat, back against a pine, looking out across a rough patch of grass and heather. This rose to a ridge a short distance away, dipped down to a place I couldn’t see and then the hulk of the mountain shot steeply upwards, a mottled work of browns, purple hues and yellows. And within minutes of my arrival, somewhere just beyond my visible range, the bubbling call of the grouse tumbled down the hill to my feet. They continued calling as they became visible: First, the white rump feathers, fluffed and desirable in the gloom, then the curved points of the tail and then the red eye wattles. And there they were, strutting, bobbing, rushing and dancing; the to’ing-and-fro’ing, the didyouspillmypint posturing and the victorious ruffling of neck feathers.

Watching those seven or eight individuals, working the dancefloor, I liked the fact that one of the most basic life defining functions could be still be witnessed in its genetically driven glory. My genes would have to work very hard to tempt me into a physical display of prowess. (And if I were persuaded then my dance moves, which are akin to someone in an uncomfortable amount of pain due to a serious bowel complaint, would be unlikely to earn me much of a harem.) But joyously, in the early morning mists lay displays of such natural force that I am compelled to wonder what we’ve surrendered in exchange for the comfort of a lifestyle where layers of artifice dress up every aspect of life and the way we live it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Down all the days

“The downs! Yes, the downs are there, full sight in your window, in their flowing forms resembling vast pale green waves, wave beyond wave, ‘in fluctuation fixed’; a fine country to walk on in fine weather for all those who regard the mere exercise of walking as sufficient pleasure”.

They are. They are full sight in my window. This is where I live. This is where I work and write. This was how W.H. Hudson described the downlands in his seminal 1910 work A Shepherd’s Life. Hampshire in the UK has its good share of the chalk downs that Hudson so revered and those in the far north of the county are among the best. These downs are part of the much larger North Wessex Downs system scattered across Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.

The very northern edge of the downs is easily picked out by following the ridge of White Hill above Kingsclere, Watership Down (yes, that Watership Down) and Ladle Hill above Old Burghclere. Here, the downs end steeply and suddenly and you look north into Berkshire, towards Newbury and beyond. Pick up any geological map, old or new, and this ridge is sharply marked out where the light green chalk of the downs ends and the map gives way to the dark browns of the London clays to the north.

Because of their position and their looming presence in the surrounding countryside human history runs deep here. Edward Thomas the Hampshire poet that was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917 and is now commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey wrote intense and burning prose about the human relationship with the downs. He said of the walls of stone that the mortar was “mixed, as in all true buildings, with human blood. The spirit of the place, all this council of time and Nature and men, enriches the air with a bloom deeper than summer’s blue of distance.”

At Ladle Hill the iron age hill fort stands on the very northwestern brink of the chalk ridgeway and the very deepest historical reasons for its location becomes clear as it looks down to the valley and across to beacon hill and westwards towards Combe Gibbet. The slopes today are bisected by hedgerows but there are places where, if you look in a certain direction you can still catch a vision of the downs before the enclosures; open downland stretching away to vanishing points lost in the folds of the valleys of chalk streams.

For some this landscape, with its grazing pasture is too comfortable, bucolic and pastoral. It doesn’t have the wildness or sharp edges of the fell country, the majesty of the mountains or the endless horizons and promises of the coastal landscape. But at the very top of the downs the exposed hawthorns are curved windward and the combination of landscape, wildlife and the changing seasons that makes this place, this doorstep wilderness, so special. Here the skylark sings in numbers still only dreamt of in other parts of the country and you understand what Edward Thomas was trying to say when he wrote that the skylark ‘…seems to be singing in some keyless chamber of the brain’.

While the now familiar red kite and the ever-present buzzards often patrol the skies during the day, little owl, tawny owl and barn owl, the ghost of the farm, are still here in good numbers, protected by large and well-managed stands of oak, beech and hazel . The hedgerows here are well preserved and are all bustle and purpose in the spring, alive with the sounds and movements of some of our most iconic and yet troubled farmland birds. Of the RSPB’s nineteen priority farmland bird species at least thirteen of them can be found in just this tiny corner of the Downs. Some of these have experienced drastic declines in the last thirty years, up to 90% in the case of the corn bunting. But here, where field margins and hedgerows abound, the familiar fishing-reel zing of the corn bunting and the urgent chatter of the whitethroat can be experienced in all their pristine surround-sound glory.

Even in Winter, where nature is at its most furtive and urgent, the downs hold more surprises. Short eared owls come here to overwinter, bobbing on their balsawood wings above the rank grass at the field margins. Large flocks of winter thrush, redwing and fieldfare pour in and out of the hawthorn trees and hares (another once familiar UK species that has suffered a widespread decline) are stunning against the white of frosted or snowy fields.

Here's to the chalk downs on my doorstep. Where talismanic bird song offers a beacon of how well we can live and work with a landscape that has changed little in the last two hundred years.

Friday, 2 March 2012

BREAKING NEWS: Writer in Residence

So after a sequence of events that I can only describe as 'a sequence of events', I have been appointed Writer in Residence at this year's WhaleFest. Working for the nice people at Planet Whale and WhaleFest I will be curating a whole series of posts, on-line and in-print publications, interviews, musings and writing reflecting the deeper themes of WhaleFest, our relationship with the sea and the things in it.

The 2011 WhaleFest featured contributions and appearances from artists, writers and filmakers such as Philip Hoare, Mark Carwardine, David Rothenberg, Mark Brownlow and more. 2012 will prove to be even bigger and better and will be held at a place and time reflecting the historic moratorium on global whaling signed in 1982. My official WhaleFest blog will launch soon. In the meantime keep up with the plans for WhaleFest at the Planet Whale website

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Birding Without Bins


Just recently my very cherished pair of Zeiss binoculars had an unfortunate accident. I wasn’t anywhere near them at the time but another inhabitant of the household was. In fact, it’s safe to say that they were near enough to have had something to do with their downfall. After some tense conversations (“So, take me through this one more time: How exactly did this happen?”) and after all the facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt, one indisputable fact remained: they were broken.

Now, any good birdwatcher has more than one pair of bins knocking around the place so, resigned to a lengthy wait until the return of my favoured pair, I dug out an old pair from the bottom of the drawer. Looking through them it became apparent that I may have well lashed together two jam jars smeared with beef dripping. I may be exaggerating but, nonetheless, they weren’t great. This left but one option: Going for a walk on the Hampshire downs without a pair of binoculars.

This, in relative terms, was not the worst tragedy that could have befallen mankind but it was unusual for me. The downs are, in the most literal sense, on my doorstep and going for a walk without binoculars was strange to begin with. But, and here’s the good part, it made me realise how much it improved my experience of birds, the wildlife and the landscape. And it was the appearance of a relatively common bird that brought this home with almost palpable force. Because If I was asked to pinpoint the moment and species where I learnt by heart my first birdsong then that’s an easy one: Skylark, allotments.

I grew up in the fens of west Norfolk, just a short distance from the Wash and it’s big sky country. The salt marsh itself provides a gluttonous visual diet of greens and huge pulsating bundles of waders and geese rolling their way across the mudflats. The utter flatness creates indescribably vast and distant cathedrals of cloud and in your ears roars a wind arriving, almost without interruption, from the steppes. It was here that I saw my first marsh harrier. Here that I swam in the salty cuts and picked up salty gashes. Here is where we collected samphire and here that every ingredient of the sheer experience of being out of doors is driven home by a sensual assault.

But I can remember, and the memory is fresh and strong, looking across the flat fenland from the family allotment in the blinding sunshine and hearing the skylark’s song and my Dad telling me what it was that sang it. From then on the skylark was there, ‘dropping silver chains of sound’. The song of the skylark then became talismanic; forever associated with the fields, farms, the sky and that place.

Since then I’ve seen thousands of skylarks perched on posts or sitting on the ground and I can recognise them as skylarks, especially through binoculars. But perched on a post it’s only half a bird, only a picture in the round view of the binoculars. Only when they take to the wing and hover high up, trilling their complex and dipping cadenza does it properly become a skylark, filling the whole space and showing us why it’s there. It shouts out to be admired and looked-at and heard. Once it’s in the air then binoculars are useless, or rather they should be abandoned, in favour of taking in the whole of the picture: the fields, the crops, the grass, the big big drifting sky and that sound. It and its song are absolutely and indescribably part of the landscape. And when I saw it on my bin-less walk on the downs I knew what the poet Edward Thomas meant when he said that it has the power to sing “in some keyless chamber of the brain.”

Now I’m not proposing that we don’t use optics for our birdwatching, that would be madness. But I’m slowly re-discovering the joy of seeing birds without binoculars because it somehow allows me to have a total experience. When I choose not to use optics I’m not just seeing a bird but experiencing it in a shared environment. With binoculars all my concentration is on the bird. Without them there is no need for concentration and only the enjoyment of the animal and the outdoors remains. And on a simple walk in the Hampshire downs the kites, the buzzards, the whitethroats and even the stone curlew can take on another level of significance when I’m not looking at them through binoculars; they can make more sense.

Similarly, if you were to go to the lagoons off the coast of Baja California for the life-defining experience of being close to and even touching a grey whale then a good guide will tell you, for just one occasion, to leave your camera behind. Why? Because just once you should not be concentrating on getting the perfect picture, fiddling with the aperture settings and peering into the display on the back of your camera after every click. For just that one occasion, it’s important that it’s just you, the sea and the whale, undisturbed by any distractions; disconnected from everything but the experience and the landscape, its inhabitants, its birds, its shape and, ultimately, our place in it.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ultima Thule


Autumn and early winter for birdwatchers is a season of relative plenty. We descend on the marshes and coastal fields to have aural and visual blitzkrieg experiences with volumes of flesh normally only associated with the grasslands of Africa. Vast and heaving flocks of wildfowl arrive on our shores with the comforting regularity of the most punctual of colleagues and our friends whose Christmas cards always arrive first. As anyone who’s been there as the sun rises on the marshes and wetlands of north Norfolk will testify, seemingly endless skeins of geese pouring in waves overhead with the added spice of sound, temperature and tricks of watery winter light create an experience not to be passed over lightly. Likewise the vast flocks of knot and dunlin.

One of the most deeply felt aspects of this experience for me is the message that these birds bring with them. They come for the most part, as they have done for countless millenia, from the North. They come from lands that are always slightly beyond imaginative limits.

In mediaeval thought and cartography this place was given a name: Ultima Thule. The very farthest of places. In some references this is a very literal place like Iceland or Greenland. But in most geographies of the dark ages, and for our own purposes, that is too narrow a definition. Ultima Thule is much more than just a tangible place. It signifies what is most distant and what lies beyond the places we can map and codify.

In some cases we can visit the Ultima Thule of the pink footed geese in Iceland but it strangely gets us no closer to understanding the enormous significance of their journey. These migrations stand as testaments to the rhythms of an earth that are by inches being knocked out of true. These beings from the north country arrive, defying us to understand how, why and by what curious clockwork they live and move. They are our connection with Ultima Thule. Furthermore, when we finally reach the point where there is a judgement on whether we’ve been able to correct the mistakes made in our stewardship of our planet, they will prove to be a more meaningful connection than a wire between us and Longyearbyen or Reykjavik.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

How much choice have we got?


“I am not free to think as I wish. I can only live in relation to the dead of my race. They, and my country’s soil, tell me how I should live.” These are the stirring and thought-provoking words of Maurice Barres. He was a late nineteenth century French politician, novelist and agitator who keenly felt the blood of his ancestors in his love of the Alsace-Lorraine region of north eastern France.

Of course, Barres was a deplorable anti-Semite, an intractable nationalist, an appalling bigot and is generally to be completely ignored. But, like all the most charismatic and terrifying people, he had one hell of a way with words. So, on this occasion, was he right or wrong?

In today’s global rotating sushi bar of choice and second-by-second information revolutions it seems easy to lose sight of the differences between the peoples of our planet, between you and me. I, like others, have a tendency to glance backwards into our bloodlines to find a clue as to what we’ve been getting wrong. We don’t always find what we’re looking for. 

In many cases we are easily seduced by a world that was less on edge and, let’s face it, had a lot fewer people in it; in our predecessors time the planet hadn’t yet reached its carrying capacity. But just as often, we find wholesale historical ecological destruction and human tragedy that fits uncomfortably with the view we’ve constructed around our own family histories.

The opposite situation exists in our time. Some languages, traditions, rites and knowledge have already been reduced to an entry on Wikipedia and the things we talk about everyday are having real effects on real people. "I don't know what global warming is, but what I do know is that this lake is dying and we are all dying with it." So says Muhammadu Bello, a fisherman on the rapidly shrinking Lake Chad. But we do know what it is because the equal and opposite reaction of dying local cultures is awareness that they’re dying. And with that comes a chance to put it right.

Berres was partly right but not in the way he wanted to be. We are free to think as we wish but the dead of my race (or even its older members) do tell me how I should live, their worst mistakes providing the lessons required. We cannot make the same mistakes. “One planet, one experiment.”

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Singer and the Song - Part 1


The traditional music of England, represented by a vast repertoire, contains chilling echoes of remorseless violence, resignation and vivid and precarious human emotions that fit anything but the comfortable stereotype so often attached to it. As a music of made of deep-running undercurrents it has long acted as a mirror and guage of social change as well as a clear cut chronology of events.

But after many years of listening to and sometimes performing this most human of music it has become clear that it can act as a catalogue of our relationship with the landscape and the natural world. In the classic imitational mirror of life and art it has tracked our changing priorities and attitudes.

The witnesses to this are everywhere. The sea has long been painted in traditional song as escape route, taker of young lives, lifeline and reflector of mood. In the Welcome Sailor the singer reminds us that her ‘heart is like the sea, always in motion’. In the songs of whaling and whalers there are constant shifts of mood and outlook. There is the romanticism of the decision to ‘ship aboard a whaler’ and the enticement to ‘you trawlermen, forget your snapper and your prawn…we sail, fishing for the humpback whale.’ In some songs, the danger of the exploit is treated as adventure but in other times and places the taste of whale oil, blood and blubber begins to taint the air and the singer becomes embittered; it becomes a life of slavery, where years of one's life is given up for little pay, in a freezing ocean where ‘of right whales there are none.’

These seemingly fickle changes are no different to mankind’s (generally) shifting attitude and is repeated in the indigenous music of many cultures. The focus of the song changes with our understanding of the precarious nature of the relationship and the even more desperate situation of the world we live in. This works on so many human levels and the music of someone like Chris Wood, exploring John Clare’s poetry as a chronicle of our landscape’s mistaken identity is one of many powerful examples. So looking back, are we able to view these songs as testimony of how far we’ve come, a casebook of our worst crimes or a roadmap to find our way back again?

Friday, 13 January 2012

It's complicated...


With all of the phlegm I can muster from my Fenland upbringing and East Anglian ancestry, and all of the fatalism I can summon, gifted to me by my Welsh forebears, I make occasional desperate attempts to play the recalcitrant and reluctant writer. At these moments I portray myself as the coldly disassociated observer (an idea I’ve played with before) coolly and calmly setting out the arguments as to why people behave as they do. I generously turn my steady and penetrating gaze upon the deeper ecological and psychological issues of the day, make judgements upon man’s relationship with his fellow non-humans, subtextually declare it the last word on the subject, put my pen down and congratulate myself on job well done. Perhaps, as a reward to myself, I will then join the rest of the human race for a while by addressing more mundane matters such as how to pay for the repairs to the roof.

After long periods of this kind of cock-a-mamy behaviour I get tired and bored and end up being myself for a while. This inevitably means soaking up the real and tangible landscapes and backyard wildernesses of the chalk hills that sit, patiently waiting for me to look up from my work, just outside my study window. And when I finally do look up, stand up, walk out and touch and feel the outdoors then that is when the thousand channels of history, emotion and feeling are at their fullest and busiest. It is rush hour in my visceral senses when I can, perversely, switch off but tune in.

It is the opportunities to simply be there, without any purpose except that of enjoying myself, that are most replete with chances of reflection. It is when I’m poised, notebook in hand, grasping for an answer to a question, that I am at my narrowest. Where I’m sure there are times that this is appropriate, the return on my investment is small when I’m focused on a single point of contact with my landscape. Spend too long there and it becomes a vanishing point.

And damn it all, I’ve just spent three paragraphs analysing what it’s like not to analyse. I’m going for a walk. If only to stitch in some more threads and also contemplate how I can use the word cock-a-mamy more in conversation.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Between the Harpoon and the Whale

Sea Shepherd. Now there’s two words that divide opinion. And just how controversial is one allowed to be on a blog?

I recently took part in Planet Whale’s Whalefest event in Brighton, UK and Sea Shepherd were there, well supported and represented. Just their presence, nestled amongst artists, writers, wildlife tour companies, musicians, film makers, scientists and armchair cetacean lovers, caused either restless discomfort or highly vocal support. And almost nothing inbetween.

The methods of direct action groups such as Sea Shepherd is something we have to get used to. But it feels as if deciding whether or not you agree with direct action presents the age old black and white conundrum: You can’t claim to be on the side of the wildlife and the oceans if you don’t agreethat saving just one whale through direct action is a good thing. But I’m convinced that black and white rarely exists on such a planet as ours.

Direct action groups have been known to denounce one another publicly, normally divided along the axis of to what extreme they are prepared to go in pursuit of their cause. The more restrained party accusing the other of crossing a line of violence and potential harm, the more active party accusing the other of passivity and being ineffectual. While this arguing is relentlessly pursued the onlooker has chance to reflect on what they really think. And when that happens, the questions spill out.

Behind the charisma of the leaders, is ego driving positional posts more intractably into the ground? After all, it must be a terrifying and motivating thought to wonder whether or not history will show you up to be the one that was wrong. What available evidence is important to me: Growing numbers of the animal of choice? Change in attitudes? How, therefore, can I tell whether it’s doing any good or not?

Although I would never condone violence I am still left undecided. Whaling is cruel and unnecessary but through the fog of claim, counterclaim, blame and cultural division, I’m struggling to see where the dice for the animals is falling. In the case of whaling, I worry that while we wait to be convinced, the inherent immovability (which I’m not sure can ever be of use) of the parties involved might ultimately drive greater attitude-forged, cultural wedges between us and those that kill whales. And that is a much more treacherous strait to navigate than the short stretch of water between the harpoon and the whale.