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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.