Thursday, June 28, 2012

A journey to the heart


My last journey is always by bicycle. Whenever I return from travel, I step off the bus, unlock my bicycle where I left it, sometimes days before, and ride the few miles home; a slow transition from one state to another. The trip is usually in the dark, but at this time of year the skies hold a memory of daylight which persists almost to midight, an inky hue in the north-west that seems like an absence of colour, a draining-away of light. In the half-darkness, I hear the curlews trilling their welcome in the fields of bog-rush: treeee-treee-tree-tre-tre-tre. I breathe in the smell of mown hay and wet tarmac, of soil and the scent of hawthorn blossom; great lungfuls of the stuff, chasing the taint of trains and cities from my lungs, giddy on the sweetness of memory, the moth's-wing kiss of damp summer rain brushing my face.
Above my head, bats stitch the darkening sky, their chaotic and purposeful flight sensed rather than seen; a series of dark dots left on the retina by their passing, a darkness in the space they have just been. The last of the evening's swifts are shrieking their ascent into another ether, a higher existence of which we can only dream, circling higher and higher in the summer sky until they are tiny black specks against the charcoal clouds, no bigger than the mosquitoes on which they feed restlessly, banished to constant motion through the brief night.

As I ride home, I am thinking again of pebble labyrinths; beautiful and intricate patterns of rounded boulders half-buried in turf, hefted into shapes that hold purpose and meaning. They are scattered across the northern lands, symbols of a culture which has always lived in an uneasy balance with the sea. Even the newer labyrinths found inland, away from the sea, somehow owe their existence to a knowledge of the dark ocean which shifts restlessly at the edge of the hills, lapping at the fringes of the forest. They are like Odysseus' oar, abandoned inland in a place that knew little of the sea, remnants of a maritime life, a life of travel and deprivation, of adventure and uncertainty, an existence of which our modern shore-tethered lives know so little.
It is said that, amongst fishing communities in the west of Scotland or Norway, or the East of Sweden, the pebble labyrinth was a talisman for a successful voyage, a pact made with the unpredictable forces of the sea. The youngest member of the crew would walk to the centre of the labyrinth whilst the rest of the sailors hung impatiently over their oars, the boat chafing against the worn timbers of the quay. From the centre, this young boy would run as fast as possible out the waiting ship and push off onto the slick, waiting water, leaving the malevolent sea sprites stranded and confused at the centre of the labyrinth, unable to disrupt the coming passage.

I love the sense of reverence in this image; this genuflection to the unknown forces of the natural world. It is a reminder that everything is not known, that we cannot control the outcome of a sea passage, cannot summon the forces of the wild world to act in our favour. Instead, we must show the necessary regard through ritual and observance, through a slow and gentle sense of mutual respect. In this way, my bike ride is my talisman against the dislocation of travel, a time to haul breath into my lungs and feel movement in my limbs at a pace which feels in tune with my body; a journey back to the heart of the labyrinth.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The promise of rain

Rain blurs the lens of my camera as I crouch in the rocky bed of the stream. To face the spring, I must turn into the persistent rain which is driving across the low fields. It is running down my hair and face, dampening the collar of my sweater. My sons are kicking through the water and shouting into the wind, delighted to be outside, exhilarated by the weather.
It has rained for forty-eight hours, a rhythmic deluge which comes and goes, pulsing like waves on an infinite sea. The ground is sodden, heavy with the burden of water. Upwellings bubble from the fields and paths; spontaneous risings of water, as though the earth can take no more and is expelling the excess rain. We are walking across the fields around the village simply to feel the rain, to see the tracks and paths which have become streams, to see the normally mute springs roaring with it, an endless white noise of running water; a reminder of how much we need this rain.


I live in a land of limestone, where streams disappear and re-appear, an intricate geography of sinkholes and springs, rumours of underground rivers like the promise of secrets withheld beneath the earth. Water echoes beneath rocks like dark wine poured from a flask in a dimly-lit room. A stream rising from the spring around which the village has grown disappears under tarmac and grass; its hollow thrumming is heard like a bird in the night beneath slabs of limestone. The village in which I live, and the ones to south and west, are spring-line settlements, located at the base of the thick strata of limestone, where the risings of underground streams provided a reliable, perennial water supply. There is a world beneath our feet, a system of dark waterways switching and dodging between the fractured joint systems of the limestone, seeping along bedding planes of rock, emerging from under strata as though flushed clean of their subterranean existence, carrying only a hint of darkness at their first exposure to the light. New-born water, filtered and fresh, earthy and mysterious.


Rivers are like stories, bringing tales from the highlands, rumours of other lands told in hissing tones, the susurrus of heresay and whispered spells. At times of heavy rain like these, rivers bring tales of destruction and chaos, fallen trees carried on bank-full brown water, boulders moved in the night by the power of the flood waters. I remember from my youth the sound of alpine rivers in flood, the dull chunk of boulders being shifted on the bed of the river during the afternoon, as the meltwater from glaciers rose in the mid-day heat. After rain like we have had this weekend, the roads are littered with pebbles, twigs and grit, scatterings of debris marking the run-off from fields and overflowing becks, the random graffiti of weather which is out of control, unbidden.
In Cumbria, our relationship with water is held in a delicate, uneasy balance, a fear of floods which might rise again in any season, a dependence on the lakes and rivers which create this green landscape. There is a tale to be told of the importance of rivers in our oral culture, the hold they have over our lives. It will be hymned in the many names we have in our native languages for watercourses: burn, stream, brook, river, water, beck, ghyll, afon, allt. In a land of wet, rivers become the defining feature of our geography, determining the position of towns and villages, of crossing points and transport systems. I recall the drainage patterns I learnt in my school geography lessons: dendritic, radial, linear; streams meeting other streams to become rivers, tendrils of water on a featureless landscape. These fragile lines seemed somehow like a map of the human body, like the nervous system which, at that age, I understood intellectually but not emotionally, the fine lines of feeling which give me the taste of water on my tongue, the soft kiss of rain on my face.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

And in coming to earth

And in coming to earth, I felt the miles shed from me like the skin of an ancient beast; the patina of travel, the foul air of hotel rooms and railway stations soughed from my lungs like the last breath of winter. In my absence, spring had happened; the creamy pom-poms of flowers covering the rowan trees, the hedgerows alive with cornflowers and iris; blue and yellow, a teasing reminder that I was at home in Cumbria, no longer in Sweden.
After travel, I feel that my soul is strung out along railway tracks and airline flight paths, that there is a period of time following a journey in which the spirit takes some time to catch up with the body, that I am not wholly in place. I stare at the flourishing garden with a detached sense of unreality; the distant hills seem like a fabled place, an ancestral memory from a children's story of how the world was, before we remade it in our own image. I have a sense of a gathering-together of the scattered parts of myself, like the re-grouping of an expedition party after an arduous passage. I need to reconnect, to feel earth in my fingers once more.
In the early evening, I walk in the local nature reserve with my son, silently naming the flowers to myself like an incantation, trying to recognise the songs of the birds. The woodland floor is thick with ferns and honeysuckle, the air smells of the rich green, as though it has weight, texture, colour. I marvel at the fractal perfection of each fern frond, notice how a new plant from this spring sags under its own weight above the mosses. It bears a single yellow leaf; one of last year's from the birch trees above, carried skywards by the growth of the fern, its last trip towards the light.

On another fern, an early evening moth rests in the paling light, iridescent in its perfection. Moths are everywhere in the mealy scent of the woods, powdered for the night, lured by the promise of the honeysuckle and thistles, their names like a vespers prayer for the souls of the dead: Powdered Quaker, Dingy Footman, Clouded Drab.
Amongst this abundance of life, spiders and woodlice shrink into the dried humus of rotting logs, fungus thrive on the rich peaty earth. We stop to watch a woodpecker collecting food for its young; the chicks chirrup from a hole in a rotten tree, a constant thrum of thin, reedy noise, a craving for food and attention. All round us, the trees are crusted with dry lichen, each crisp yellow scale a marriage of opposites: the symbiosis between a fungus and a bacterium, the light-loving and the light-avoiding. They are a perfect metaphor for the shadows and light which shift across this woodland floor. 
  At this time of year, it seems that all is growth, all is decay. The insects and plants spin through life cycles too fast for us to follow, too impermanent for our human span, too close a reminder of the transience of spring, a warning of our own proximity to decay and decline.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A speck of darkness, a world of light

On Saturday the sixth of June 1761, the gentleman farmer and amateur meteorologist Isaac Fletcher gathered with two of his friends at his comfortable house at Mosser. A small hamlet which straggles along the lower slopes of the fells, it has wide views across a sedge-filled valley towards Pardshaw, with its recently built Quaker Meeting House, below the rock on which George Fox had preached several times. Fletcher was part of the coterie of enquiring Quaker minds in this western enclave of noncomformity, as was another of the three gathered early on that June morning: Elihu Robinson from Eaglesfield, only twenty-six years old, but already noted for his quick mind, his interest in the world. It was shortly after dawn, and the day promised to be clear. “The sun then appeared large with a thin black cloud over it, which soon went off as the sun rose higher in the horizon.” wrote Fletcher in his diary “The image of the sun & the planet Venus as a black spot appeared very plain upon a white cloth put up for that purpose. The path of the planet over the sun's disk was easy to delineate and very curious to behold, tho' clouds sometimes interfered.”
It was the first time that the transit of Venus had been studied with such scientific precision. With the ability to accurately predict this rarest of astronomical phenomena, scientists across the world were rigging their white cloths and paper screens, hoping to record in detail the time of the planet's passing across the surface of the sun. With the application of some basic trigonometry, they would be able to estimate the distance from the earth to the sun, as though our place in the heavens could be measured.


The Royal Society in London had prepared for years. They had dispatched expeditions to South-east Asia and the south Atlantic, the furthest reaches of the world which would be friendly towards British explorers. To St Helena went Nevil Maskelyne, later to become Astronomer Royal. To Sumatra, they sent the surveyor Charles Mason, with his assistant Jeremiah Dixon. The two made it as far as South Africa in time, and observed the transit from the Cape of Good Hope. Two years later, the pair went together to America, to map the frontiers of the newly-developing states, demarking a line which still bears their name.
Transits occur eight years apart; like London buses, you wait 105 years then two come at once. By 1769, the Royal Society were determined to gather accurate data. They dispatched a young up-and-coming naval Captain, James Cook, to the south Pacific in HMS Endeavour, taking with him a naturalist, Joseph Banks. The expedition was away for three years, establishing an astronomical base on Tahiti, Point Venus, before moving south, encountering lands never before visited by Europeans, a Terra Australis of strange fauna and unfamiliar people. It was a voyage that would make Banks' name as a naturalist; he was fĂȘted on his return, became the brilliant star of the London Salons.
In 1772, the year after Cook and Banks returned, Nevil Maskelyne proposed to the Royal Society that the unspent funds from the Transit of Venus expeditions could be used for new work to determine the density of the earth. The site they selected, a perfect-shaped mountain in central Scotland, gave the name to the Schiehallion Experiment; but it also resulted in Maskelyne's assistant, Charles Hutton, devising the technique of contour lines as a new means of mapping slopes. The Transit of Venus became a catalyst for exploration and discovery, a rare event from which the ripples of science could spread in the enlightenment, a dark speck on the surface of our sunny ignorance.


Venus has always been the morning and evening star; the brightest light in the heavens. It is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, as though we could never imagine so perfect an earthly thing. The Ancient Greeks believed it to be two separate stars which would appear at either morning or night: Phosphorus and Hesperus, the Light Bringer and the son of the Dawn Goddess, Lucifer and Vesper. From a distance, it appears beautiful, silvery-blue, freshly polished. For centuries we could imagine it to be an idyll, a romantic remove. Since the first landings in the sixties, we now know its atmosphere is almost pure carbon dioxide, tainted with traces of sulphuric acid, its surface scarred with the weals of volcanoes, an imagined hell, a warning of how things may yet become; a warning of how knowledge becomes a thing we can never un-know, a return from an ideal, the fading of distant beauty.

Tomorrow, Venus passes once again across the face of the sun, a path as perfect and predictable as a ball thrown into the air, curving through the sky on an arc governed by gravity and time. Once again, the telescopes of the world will be following its course, this time excited by the information it might reveal about exoplanets, or those that might exist beyond our own solar system. This centennial event has become a repository for our hopes and dreams of a world beyond our own, a tiny point of focus for the sharpest scientific minds of our age, a single point of darkness crossing the landscape of a bright, flaring world.