Sunday, 27 January 2013
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
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.