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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.  

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