Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Cartographer


Let me tell you how easy it is to lose yourself.
I grew up believing that I always knew where I was. I placed my faith in the maps I learned to read as a child; the fine lines of stream and footpaths, the neat precision of churches with spires or towers, or bus stations and railway stations. I imagined the land around me laid as as though from a map: the hills ringed with brown contours, the forests arranged in neat rows of lollipop-shaped trees. I saw the narrow yellow road leading northwards from the village of my childhood, and knew that I could travel that way with certainty, protected by the knowledge folded between the salmon-coloured covers of the map I read each evening. I travelled in my mind.
I studied maps endlessly. I believed that they held some inexpressible truth; that everything we knew and did could be codified by these symbols and colours. I looked for perfection, and found it more clearly in the paper representations of the world than in the untidy, chaotic land which sprawled about me. I wanted a map for every purpose: to find my way in an argument, to find a thing I had lost, to find love.
The more I placed my faith in maps, however, the less they seem to explain what I could see around me. They could not tell me why the walk along this lakeshore can be so different in sun and in rain, or why the path through the little park can seem like an eternity to a child, yet only an instant to a pair of young lovers. They could not tell me how to truly find my way in life.
I know now that the land is made from layers of memory; strata of dreams and regrets, romances and discontents, which accumulate over the years like the soot which blackens the walls of the buildings in this small town. I know that there is a strange and tragic history between its streets, and yet I still listen for its stories of hope, its echoes of love.
I sometimes wished that everything in the world could be mapped, so that it might be possible to follow the traces of tears, the nodes of heartbreak, the thin glowing threads of ambition woven like fairy lights between office and home, between restaurant and hotel. I picture these layers of emotion, stacked one on top of another, so that it is possible to see everything that has ever happened in this place; layer upon layer of meaning, the colours blending softly from marble white to slate grey, from ochre to sienna, like the thin salty residue left when tears dry.
I drew maps of my own. I listened to the whisper of lovers at dusk, and traced the lines of their heartache with my pen. I visited park benches and mapped the people who sat there, their hopes and disappointments. I watched the swifts sketching patterns in the summer sky and imagined that these, too, could be mapped: a web of shrieking, mercurial paths, each one random, beautiful, fleeting. I watched my love walk away from me, and I etched her slow walk across the fields with a line of the darkest grey.
I knew, finally, that I needed to get off the map. I left home without planning a route, walking a path which left the town through dense woodland, shaded from the heat and pungent with the summer smells of moist earth and the citrus tang of resin. At each junction I did not look at my maps, choosing instead the route which seemed the prettiest, the most interesting, the least trodden. By this way I walked towards open country, where no footprints pitted the baked earth. Standing at the edge of an expanse of bog and moss, I saw at last the delicate colours of summer in the hills, rather than imagining the contour lines which I knew would have circled around this basin of land like the remnant paths of circling peregrines.
I slept the night in a ruined sheepfold. It was a mild summer's evening, but as night thickened and grew colder, I unfolded the maps I carried and spread them over my body to keep off the chill of the dew.
When I woke, the sun had risen above the mountains and my quilt of paper had dried and wrinkled. I folded each sheet carefully and left them stacked in a shallow niche in the stone wall against which I had rested my head. I picked up the shallow beginnings of a mountain stream and followed it downhill, knowing that soon enough it would join another, and then another, gathering pace towards the beckoning river.


'Cartographers', a play co-written by Kim Moore, Lindsay Rodden, Joe Ward Munrow and Ian Hill, directed by Stefan Escreet, will be at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick on 7 September 2013. For more details, see here


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hoping for a god


The summer heat draws dragonflies from the grass. They flicker, yellow and blue and gold, in the fierce slanting glare of the sun. The cliff path is thick with grasses; dust spilling from their seed heads as I walk, as though through a parched desert. The furred kernels of the seeds glow golden in the late sun. The rocks which fringe the path are crusted in mealy flakes of dry, crisp lichens: Ramalina, Xanthoria, Flavoparmelia; the strange litany of their names like an ancient prayer.
I am surrounded by noise in the stillness of a summer's evening. Crickets, invisible but for the noise of their chirring, still into silence briefly as I pass, before striking up again behind me. Black-headed gulls turn and turn in the still air, shrieking this place is mine-mine-mine.

I have come here to rest with the family, to withdraw from the world for a week and gaze aimlessly at the sea. I run the cliff path each morning, flushing deer from the still-damp grass, my footsteps alerting the rock pipits as they skitter across the lower cliffs, disappearing amongst the ochre shades of the lichens. In this unusually hot weather, my eyes are clouded with sweat; my legs dimpled with grass seeds and petals which stick to me from the sides of the path.
It is a pleasure to have no commitments; to feel the length of the day yawning ahead like a featureless sea. Each day settles into a rhythm almost neolithic in its simplicity: walking, swimming, reading, eating. I realise that I have reached a time of my life when work no longer holds a purpose, where ambition pales into a pursuit for younger men, and meaning is to be found elsewhere, amongst the simple pleasures of family and place. Walking down a narrow lane in Kirkcudbright during the week, I read on a house gable the carved words from a poem by Rabbie Burns:
To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife,
That's the true pathos and sublime
Of human life
And I know that my task here this week is to stare at the slowly-changing clouds, the ruffled sea, to tread this path around the headland at morning and evening, silently reciting the names of birds and plants like an incantation to protect me against the world beyond.

Beyond the deep gull-scarred bay, a pair of steep ditches circle the headland. They are filled with the low-growing flowers of a coastal summer: stonecrop, thrift and trefoil. The dusty blue of harebells is a reminder of the shortening days; a sign that the best may yet be past.
The earthworks rim the site of an Iron Age fort. In this part of Scotland, such forts are almost always coastal, tucked onto clifftops and headlands such as this, facing the sea on three, safe, sides.
I try to imagine a life here; a low circular hut of oak staves and dry thatch, the near-constant wind shaking the hazel poles in the roof. I listen to the colonies of gulls bickering on the ledges beneath, and try to picture them as food: a source of eggs gathered by an agile young man lowered on a rope plaited from roots, held in a precarious balance between the need for life and the possibility of death. I wonder about the threats which drove these people to narrow, isolated headlands: the fear of raids at night, the need to sleep with the children in the centre of the circle, unaware of the spears and arrows tucked beneath their parents' heads.
It may be that I share no DNA with the three thousand year old inhabitants of this fort; that their line may have died out by the time the Romans arrived, that my own folk may be interlopers; latecomers from the low countries or Germany. Nonetheless, in the yellow light of early evening, as the sun empties its warmth onto the pale rippled sea, I feel their inheritance in the way I view the land. I yearn for their faith and patience, the journeys they would have made to find this site, the earth beneath their fingernails as they dug these ditches, their fear and sense of mystery when faced, at last, with the infinite sea.
There is a knowledge here which is buried in this dry, hard soil. I reach to touch one of the lichened rocks which have been placed end-upwards on the line of the embankment wall, perhaps as a marker, perhaps as part of some defensive system against an enemy we do not know. As I feel the stone beneath my hands, I experience that jolt of memory which reminds me that people lived here, families like mine; that they walked the same route I do today, looked at the same sea, the same view to distant islands suspended on the colourless horizon. I close my eyes and picture them hardening their sticks over a smouldering fire, casting ashes on the waters, hoping for a god who rises, like the summer sun, from the unfathomable sea.



Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hatteringill



A pile of stones, that's all. The moss-furred stumps of walls, studded with slates collapsed slantwise, like skeleton teeth. A single hawthorn grows from the centre of the ruin; compact, hunched, lightly dusted with the creamy down of may blossom. It is far higher than any of the walls.
I can make out two or three rooms, a byre at the northern end, beside the spring which barely flows now, choked with ferns and sedge, thick with sediment. I can imagine the front doorway in the centre, flanked by protruding wings of two rooms which would have provided some shelter from northern winter winds. I picture it left open on summer afternoons such as this one, flies heavy in the limpid air, white butterflies drifting from the hawthorn flowers like a piece of blossom set free.
Today, wheatears are busy amongst the walls, gorging on the flies which have emerged into this rare summer warmth. They perch on capstones and fenceposts to sing, before darting lower to feed. Their song combines a dull chack with a high, fluted huweet; a strange mixture of two notes at once; one high, one low. It is a reminder of the fairness and foreboding which summer days like this hold: the languid warmth of high summer, the gathering darkness of rain clouds as they mass on the horizon like a memory we tried to forget. The peach-coloured breasts of the birds are too subtle for this day of blazing sun, the butter-yellow richness of the flowers, the abundant white of the blossom.
We approached today downhill, through grassy meadows dotted with bedstraw and tormentil, through seas of cotton grass whose span of flowering is as brief as a sunny day in Cumbria. My son is enchanted by this sudden blossoming of the hills, taking photographs of all he can see, turning his inquisitive gaze onto the grasses, the tiny flowers, the wheatears on the fence. I watch him move around the field as though this is a land to which he was born, which in a way is true; he has walked amongst these hills since the time when I carried him between brief spells of tottering between his parents' hands. He is shedding the awkwardness of adolescence, developing a grace and beauty in movement, an attentiveness to the world which I have worked so hard to learn. I blink, and time passes; my summers now seem as they must do to one of these butterflies: too brief, too bright, too short to visit every tree in blossom.


The ruins stand at the end of a dirt track, reached from an unmade road, on the eastern flank of an unremarkable hill. The land around is still grazed, but the hills are rarely walked; the footpaths grow blurred with disuse. I have no idea when this farm was abandoned. It may have been simply a summer steading, left closed between October and April whilst the cattle were gathered in the valley head below. It occupies a shallow shelf of land below the slopes of the fell, sheltered from the westerly winds, with a view across the mosaic of fields in the valley. A perfect site.
In 1985, there were 6,500 farms in Cumbria. Now there are less than 4,800. In those thirty years, the number of small farms – those under twenty hectares – has declined by almost a quarter. I feel their absence everywhere on these low hills, which are grazed now from distant farms; it is so rare to see anyone working these pastures any more, save for the brief dust-plumed passage of a Land Rover, the scuffle of collie dogs and sheep skittering wildly in the trailer. At times I think the land is pared to the bone: worked for a meagre living by families whose offspring would rather forget the farm and move to the town; farm buildings sold for conversion as houses and holiday cottages; land parcelled and sold to the few families who are still in the business. The ruins of old shielings like this one feel like a gateway to a forgotten world.

We turn to go as the clouds thicken to the south-west, silently pillowing into slate-coloured thunderheads. I leave with an image of Hatteringill as it might have looked a hundred years ago, busy with the work of a summer day in the hills: the smell of the wood fire, the sound of bannocks crisping on the griddle, the drip-drip of curds draining in a bucket by the spring. I picture the view from the open doorway of the bigger hills to the east, the colours they turn at the end of a sunny day, from rich copper-red, through rose pink to violet until finally, with a brief flare of light, they pale into the deep indigo of the short night.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Sea Change


Outside of the village where I live, crossing the brow of the hill, the view opens across low, rolling fields, out to the coast and the widening waters of the Solway Firth, where it meets the Irish Sea. Beyond, the hills of southern Scotland change colour and mood, depending on the weather. Whenever I pass this way, I pause at the brow of the hill and look out over the endlessly changing colours of the water, which shift from steel grey, through pale blue, to an almost colourless shade that reflects the paleness of the sky. On windy days, tiny flecks of white are barely visible on its surface, although I know that, out there, they will be large breaking waves; concentrations of noise and power, like wind made manifest. The sea is out there, somewhere, and I feel comforted.
I grew up far from the sea. Not so much geographically far, in the way that nowhere in England is more than a few dozen miles from the coast, but emotionally far, in that it did not touch my life. Once a year, we took our family holidays in seaside resorts which could be reached by train: Scarborough, Yarmouth, Folkstone; towns of a solid Victorian civility, their manicured pitch-and-put greens rolling towards the promenade, the pier, the beach. It was our annual encounter with some meek version of the wild strangeness of the sea, its rhythmic mystery and shifting tones. Holidaying inland did not seem to be an option, but it was not clear why we were by the sea. We played ball on the beach, searched for strange shaped shells, made sandcastles. Returning home, we would find a few grains of sand spilling from the toes of our socks after they were washed.
In the county where I grew up, the coast was fringed by saltmarsh; an indeterminate place which was neither land nor sea, which breathed the smell of saltiness but was perched above the distant waves, dry and pocked with the prints of birds. Rarely, we visited these unnerving flatlands to pick samphire; a soft fleshy saltmarsh plant which we blanched in a pan and pickled in vinegar, only partly disguising its salty taste, its haunting memory of the sea. On these brief visits, we stayed close to the high tide line with its car parks and footpaths, aware of a visceral but unnamed fear of the wildness which lay beyond. It was a perfect metaphor for my childhood relationship with the sea: distant, aloof, unknown.
I never thought of this relationship which we have with the sea - which I had with the sea - until I learned to sail in my mid-twenties. Not on the sea, at first, but in a dull concrete reservoir in the Oxfordshire countryside, a place where my friend had access to the local sailing club's boats. We cycled there on his tandem; two tall, lanky men on a fully laden bicycle whooping and screaming through lanes of cow parsley and hawthorn, the wind in our faces; the city over our shoulders. I learned nothing there of the sea, nothing of the movements of tides and waves, but I realised that I had been introduced to some ancient truth, had discovered a form of movement which was entirely dependent upon the world around us, on the wind and the water, as though to sail was to give up a part of one's own determinism and trust to the benevolence of the elements. It felt liberating, unfettered. I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the shroud wires, the slapping of halyards against the masts in an autumn breeze, the intense concentration required simply to continue moving in one direction when all around me was shifting and uncertain. The boats we sailed were prosaic glass fibre bathtubs, but in a good breeze, I felt like I was flying.
Later, I moved to the coast, and, for a few years, sailing become a part of my life. I sailed larger boats; ketches and cutters, clinker-built relics in which everything happened at a slower pace. I crossed the Irish Sea one summer in a friend's twenty foot sloop, and I began to understand something of the terrifying and unequal relationship which people have always had with the sea. I remember the sense of gathering darkness as the coast of Wales paled into an evening sky, and the short June night which, from our isolation in the middle of the sea, seemed to last so long: three hour watches on deck with a head torch fixed on the tiny compass on the cockpit housing; the inability to cook or eat anything in the rolling haystacks of waves; the sense of relief in seeing the coast of Wicklow appearing in the grey of morning. That evening, exhausted from a sleepless night, my body still swaying inside from the constant movement, I cupped a pint of Guinness in my hands and felt as though I had passed some test; as though I had entered a world in which my own powerlessness was dependent upon the sea, the wind, the tides. I thought of the manoeuvre in which a boat is 'hove-to': adrift yet inert; in control but unpredictable.

I no longer sail, but the sea does not fail to stir something in me. We take our family holidays on distant islands; westward fragments of a wild land, set in a wilder sea. When I step on the ferry each summer in Oban, I watch the yachts clustered in the harbour with envy and understanding. Like many people brought up in the British Isles, I carry the scent of the sea with me like an inner knowledge, like a sense of privilege, as though the sea represents some ancient freedom we might once have had, and only dimly remember.
And I begin to understand how it might always have been so; how boats are not a modern luxury toy, but a human creation forever tied to our development; like the wheel, or the plough. I read today of the discovery and excavation of a group of eight Bronze Age boats beneath a quarry in Cambridgeshire. They are estimated at 3,000 to 3,600 years old, and so well-preserved that they could still float when removed from the Fenland peat. Within them were eel traps which are almost identical to those used by eel fishers in the fens today. I thought of the importance of boats to these people, their journeys from mainland Europe, across a sea that had already covered the ice age land bridge between Britain and the continent, towards a land which, on fine days, they could see in the distance, but on stormy days would have demanded a commitment, a faith, to attempt the journey. I thought of the huge oak trees a metre wide from which some of these boats were built, adzed by hand using primitive tools, shaped into something which was both beautiful and seaworthy. I thought of the Fenland coast of my youth, the layers of silt filling its muddy creeks, the almost-silence broken by a faint hiss in the distance which could only be heard on still days; the sound of the distant sea, calling softly.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Hill of the Winds


I have told no-one this before.
Above the valley, where the trees dwindle to a few gnarled birches, a rowan overhanging the burn, are the ghosts of villages. Their shapes emerge through the early snow; a ghillie's cottage, a shieling. Some are nothing more than the traces of walls, a nettle-covered midden, the gap-toothed absence of a fireplace or a doorway. In some lights, they appear wistful and elegiac; in others, sad and abandoned.
We heard of one building with a sound roof and a wooden floor, left open as a bothy. It nested in ochre folds of land at the base of a towering, windswept hill, the dark shape like a presence of a benign spirit. Beyond, the knuckled ridges of paler hills stretched to the head of the Loch.
We walked in, three of us, through the long December twilight, the gathering dusk of short highland days. We travelled as light as we could: food for a few days, warm gear, a bottle of malt whiskey. We had no plans, as though to be in the presence of that huge hill was enough. I took a book to read, relished the idea of a few days of stillness and solitude, the wide views which can be found in the highlands in winter. By the time we arrived at the bothy, the light had paled from the sky, colour leached from the land.
The first night, my friends fell asleep quickly. I could hear their rhythmic breathing as we lay, side by side, in the old byre at the back of the room. I lay awake, drifting in and out of that liminal space between sleeping and waking, listening to the sounds of the old building creak and settle, its timbers easing into night.
Somehow, I knew there was a figure in the doorway, a paler shape against the darkness. I could not hear or see it, but I knew it in the way that one is aware of being watched, or of the presence of a loved one. I was not afraid; my mind was still slipping towards sleep, my thoughts unanchored.
The figure crossed the room slowly, soundless on the wooden floor. Above my head, over my left shoulder, it paused briefly and leaned over me. I felt the lightest kiss on my forehead.
I snapped into consciousness, fumbled for the torch. I was breathing hard, but still not afraid. The kiss had felt like an electric shock passing through me, a call to alertness. I was aware of not wanting to wake my friends, although I did not know whether this was from fear of appearing foolish, or from a willingness to hold this fading sensation which tingled through my body. Even in the darkness, I knew that there was no other person in the room; the door was still clasped shut. I felt disoriented, confused, but strangely enlivened, listening to the sighing of the silent bothy, aware of the sense of absence in the room. After a few minutes, I lay down in the darkness. Soon, I was drifting into sleep again.
The next morning, clouds had gathered above the hills, darkening the slopes of rock and heather. We walked to the lochside, listened to the limp wind stirring ripples beyond the pebbled shore. The dark hill rose above us like a nagging memory, a presence of something which could not be forgotten. We threw stones into the Loch, listless and unsettled, unwilling to climb any of the high hills as the weather worsened. I could feel the kiss on my forehead like a burn, like a benediction.
We left the bothy later that day; the weather had turned and the last threads of snow had melted from the tops of the mountains. The sky was overcast, bruise-coloured, threatening rain. On the long walk down, I was aware of the mountain over my shoulder, an implacable presence, like a figure in a doorway.
At times, I can still feel the sensation left by that kiss. In quiet moments, when I am far from the hills, it seems like a sense of promise, as though some agreement was sealed in that darkened bothy. When I think of the hills, I sometimes touch my forehead as though it is still wet, as though the mark of an angel has been left there.
I have told no-one this before.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Storms

On waking, I know that something has changed outside the window. The light has a soft, gentle quality like the memory of a childhood bedroom. The sound is different, too, and I know that it has snowed. The garden is pillowed in white, and snow is still falling from a sky which seems absent of colour, drawn in the many tones of grey, like an ink stain washed from a sheet.
I pull on wellingtons and walk out onto open fields, feeling the gentle benevolence of the snow on my hair and face. This morning, the chill air is like a tonic, a reminder of the healing nature of the world, its ability to renew and surprise. The snow brings a freshness to familiar fields and hedges, the soft perfection of its covering an image of how the world would be if re-made, cast anew.
I turn my back to the wind to take a photograph, and my view is streaked with snow; blurred white across the sky like a chalk mark in the rain. In this light, at this hour, the sky and the snow are the same colour, so that the dark lines of hedges seem poised in space; a crisp line in an otherwise formless world. As I take the picture, I notice the brown spots which are starting to speckle the backs of my hands; marks of my own growing antiquity, like the tea-coloured acid spots which appear amongst the text of old manuscripts. I feel the chill in my fingers more quickly now; wear more layers when walking out in the snow. And yet snow still has the power to excite me, to draw me early from bed when I sense its strange flat light through the curtains. Every time, it feels like a blessing.

When the snow arrived, I fell ill; a non-specific virus which passed through my body like a brief but violent storm. My legs seemed leaden, my body weak and febrile, like the damage felt after a night of gales. It left me drugged and exhausted in the mornings, peering at the world as though through many layers of dense grey muslin. I lay on the sofa, staring out at the snow, and daydreaming.
It snowed for days, slowly accumulating on the fells which I could see from my living room window. Their shapes are as familiar to me now as those speckled backs of my hands; I know each ridge and gully, every stream in every valley. I could imagine the snow filling the familiar curves and hollows, smoothing the surface of the hills, softening their contours until the shape of the hills was lost, smoothed into blankness. In my state of sickness and torpor, I dreamed of white spaces; open plains of snow blown by gusting winds, billowing into formless, colourless plumes. I thought of white, and it soothed me.
At times like these, I understand how we are kin to the weather, how we channel its moods and motions, how storms blow through us in the same way that they blow through the winter skies overhead, bending branches and rattling the roof tiles. I pondered on the way that the word 'depression' describes both a weather system and an ailment, as though each is powered by forces beyond our control, how each ravages and leaves destruction in its trail.

Whilst I was ill, I started to sort through boxes of old photographs, rescuing them from the damp which pools in the house in winter; the dark spots of mould which bloom across the walls like the spots of age on my hands. It is part catharsis and part obligation, this process of returning to prints which are growing sticky with age, the moisture spreading across their surface as though time itself was painted on the face of the image; it is a returning of memory which is sometimes welcome, but sometimes ambivalent.

The oldest photograph I found in the box was taken in one of the hard winters at the start of the 1980s, a time when the snow stayed for days on the Lake District hills, when I would hitch north through fog and snow to arrive in the late evening at the foot of the fells, sleeping out in cow byres or abandoned cottages, up early to be on the hills before the weather turned or the short day faded to gloom. In this photograph, I am paused on an uphill climb, picking my way through the snow and rocks into the secluded valley of Ruthwaite Cove. The equipment I am carrying seems from another age, my rolled-up shirtsleeves a symbol of the careless invincibility of youth. I look from this photograph to the view out of my window and think of all the winters since then, some as snow-bound and inviting as this picture, many absent of snow, wet and windy, torn through with the endless procession of storm fronts and depressions. The winters are changing, I think to myself, and a small voice says: And so are we.

After a few days, as the gales subside, I finally have the energy to go out on the hills. Snow is still blowing across the ridges: dry, loose powder which plumes into whirlpools and spirals in a gentle rhythm, refracting the low sun into a brilliant, fractured light.
As I climb, in time with the pace of my feet crisping in the fresh snow, some lines are running through my head; the opening of Yeats' An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: 'I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above' It is a line which haunts me as I near the top of the ridge, where the dirty clouds are spilling with an almost malevolent pace, a turbid mixture of grey and white; cloud and blown snow. It seems to capture the lure and foreboding of the hill top as it disappears into the cloud. I climb slowly, my legs still feeling the exhaustion of the virus, my footsteps faltering as the gusts buffet me on the exposed spine of the hill: I know....that I….will meet....my fate. The crest of the mountain is the white openness of my dreams. Beneath the roar of the wind, I feel a deep peace.

Within a few days, the snow is starting to thaw. Dark spots are appearing on the lawn where earth emerges from beneath the white; a reminder of the transient nature of winter, the slow warming of the days as we edge towards spring. My virus passes, and I am left with a little residual weakness in my legs, but with a yearning to be out in the cold air, the last of the snow, the bright spring light which flickers off the land.
I walk my familiar route across fields firm from days of frost, the late sun slanting across the last of the snow drifted behind hedges and fences. Three snipe billow from the grass in front of me and jink away downwind; agile, chaotic, far more nimble than I feel. I am still thinking of Yeats' airman, recalling the final lines of poem:
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind,
In balance with this life, this death.
It strikes me that this closing is not simply a portent of death; seen in the bright winter light which spills across the fields on this beautiful fading day, it is also an affirmation of life: Yeats has perfectly skewered the uneasy relationship between feeling very, totally, fiercely, alive, and yet feeling the fragile imminence of mortality, the precarious balance in which we live our lives. It is a feeling known to all mountaineers; it is the feeling which drove me back to those snow-filled gullies as a reckless eighteen-year-old. It is not about risking one's life, as much as understanding one's vibrant fragility: the purpose and meaning of our lives, the fuse which ignites within us when we are out, exposed, unprotected on wild white mountains in winter.
Today, it is enough simply to be walking these open fields, the wind in my face, the sun declining towards the lines of hedges. I turn into the setting sun, away from the cold but slackening eastern wind. Behind me, the snow-covered hills glow creamy-white in the last of the light, like the sails of stately schooners heading for open sea.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A fierce and subtle alchemy

Stile End, February 2013, digital picture
I am nested in heather. Hunched beneath rocks whitened by sun and wind, I sip my tea and take in the view. The wind tugs my hair but my hands are warm from the cup between them. I settle further into the heather and start to pick out details on the hills across the valley: a narrow path rising and falling like a wave beneath the crags; a figure on the path, lilting from side to side on the uneven cobbles; two ravens gusting upwards from the ridge of the further hill, wheeling briefly in flight before settling again. I realise how rarely I take the time to stop like this, each outing to the hills brief and hurried, some thoughts noted, some photographs taken, somewhere else to be before long. This time, I try to really look: to pick out the curves and sweep of the crags as though they are braille beneath my fingertips; to see the hills as intricate shapes, with their wrinkles and shadows picked out by the low sun, rather than mentally naming them and moving on. I leave my camera in my rucksack, and settle into stillness.
Camera. I am pondering on the origin of the word: from camera obscura, a darkened room, a place in which the curious and the leisurely would sit and observe the landscape projected onto the wall of a circular chamber. In time, portable versions were used as aids for landscape painters, enabling them to trace the correct proportions of the view directly onto paper, although the rooms continued to exist as a form of amusement for the flaneurs and aesthetes. I think of the one which still exists on top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, positioned to provide an expansive panorama of the city, where carts and people could be seen moving along the city's closes and winding streets like figures in a play. It enchants me, this idea of the view being the subject of curiosity and interest; landscape as entertainment. I wonder if the skill of looking at landscape is becoming a lost art, a thing which belongs to another age, like watercolour landscape painting and film photography.
Hoy from Orkney, 1992, digital scan of 35mm negative
I started to take and develop my own photographs in my late teens. I have no idea from where the impulse arose: I knew no-one who had the skills, there were no courses available; I read a few books, bought a few chemicals and experimented. I had access to a crude darkroom in my former school: a dusty cupboard where a German-made enlarger from the 50s or 60s was hidden behind piles of old textbooks. I worked in plastic trays borrowed from the chemistry laboratory, kept my mixed chemicals in brown jars with ground glass stoppers.
I found an old box camera of my father's: a twin lens reflex which took rolls of 120 film, their bulky plastic spindles like sewing-machine shuttles. It had no light meter, forcing me to learn the obscure argot of aperture stops and shutter speeds. I photographed the landscape around my parents' home; disused railway bridges of dense blue-grey brick, lines of poplars at the distant edges of rutted fields, striped white with the early snow of winter. I worked only in black and white; partly because it was technically much easier, but also because I loved the antiquated simplicity of tone which defined the image; the world around me reduced to shadows and light, to form, shape and texture.
WH Fox Talbot, Oak Tree in Winter, 1843
I was, I realised later, discovering a long association between photography and landscape. I remember the first time I saw one of William Henry Fox Talbot's prints at the British Library, I was entranced by the fragile beauty of the image, by the magic by which this particular grey and cloudless Wiltshire day could be captured and preserved, here, now, on this paper. I think of Edward Muybridge's early work with large format cameras in the mountains and forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains, of Ansel Adams' timeless pictures of the same scenes, of the serene magnetism of Hamish Fulton's highland scenes: photographers have forever turned to landscape, as though the beauty of place is too intricate, too perfect, too complex to comprehend other than in retrospect.
Landscape was also attractive because it didn't move, of course. In the days of long exposure times, often lasting several minutes, people would come and go through a scene, crossing a field or a town square in less than the time it took to make the exposure, leaving only a trace of their passing on the photographic plate, like a ghost in the presence of something solid, a shadow of impermanence in a defined world. I see photographs like these now in museums; the ghosts of passers-by blurred against a lamppost or on a street corner, and I think of the brief passage of our souls, the Victorian photographs that purport to show spectres and otherworldly visitations, the slow processes of death and decline which can be stilled by the pressing of a shutter.
The beauty of traditional photography, I realise, is that it is a way of turning light into something solid: a mysterious alchemy by which tone and shade is transformed into crystalline salts. What we are seeing really is the light, captured and pinned like a butterfly beneath glass, in the same way that vinyl records truly capture the vibrations of sound, rather than a digitally-modified version of them. It is no wonder to me that some traditional cultures believe that to take a photograph is to steal a part of one's soul. We regard this as quaint superstition, whereas it may be a way of seeing the world that we have long lost, and for which we are the poorer.
Now I take digital photographs, and something in me sighs at the bland simplicity of the act, the wastefulness of time and effort which comes from something so disposable, so far from our attentiveness and patience. I can still remember, like a spectre on a photograph, the acidic tang of developer on my fingers, the unreal ochre light of the darkroom and the bur of photographic paper against my fingertips. Most of my equipment I have lost or given away, but I still keep a developing tank, my old 35mm camera, my files of fading negatives. I think I can still recall how to develop a film; it is a skill, like baking bread or mending a bicycle, that one should remember, as a talisman against the depredations of time.
These days, I make artists' prints: etchings and engravings, which I print in dark sepia tones, muddied with shadows like a memory of something found. It is a time-consuming process, with unpredictable results: each print is different, each showing the marks of hands in the soft, dark ink. There is, for me, something of that same photographic alchemy in the way that an etching reveals itself from the ink on the plate, the slow emergence into light which reminds me of a print appearing in a bath of developer. It is still a form of mystery; a way of looking at the world which requires patience and precision, a sense of joy in the happenstance and uncertainty of image-making, a willingness to be surprised, again and again, by the fierce and subtle beauty of the world.
Feather 2, drypoint etching, 2011

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Threshold

I think that I have heard voices in the margins of the fields at dawn and at dusk. There may be singing in the space between the gusts of wind; an old country song of love and destiny, sung high and sweet. At times, a child's voice joins in, when she knows the words, when the tune is familiar. Sometimes, I imagine I can hear laughter in the hollow by the spring, although the fields are always empty when I cross.

I walk this field so many times: at first light, when frost hardens the earth and stills the water in the spring; in the fading light of late afternoon, when the westering sun settles into a bank of cloud and the colours are flushed from the land. It is a place almost as familiar as my own garden; a hundred yards or so from the village, through a gate at the top of the lane, bordered by old hawthorns and a few stately ash trees. I never see people here; the field is always silent, except for the wind in the trees and the bleat of distant sheep.
As I cross, I notice the land rising and falling beneath my feet, like waves on the ocean caught in mid-swell. These are the remnants of an ancient strip farming system; a medieval pattern of ridges and furrows which marked each family's strip of land. As I look around the edges of the field, I begin to notice abandoned tracks, the stumps of hedgerows which break the surface like a scar beneath the skin, gateways closed by wire fences. With imagination, it is possible to see the land differently, to imagine a time when the soil was worked for food by all the families in the village; a time when fields were not empty, or home to a few vacant-looking sheep, but were full of people, women and children too, tilling and sowing, hoeing and thinning. I can imagine the lane which leads from the village full of life at first light, the chatter echoing from the wall of the barns, the gateways dimpled with the tiny footprints of the children. I picture the spring at the bottom of the field edged with worn stones, full of clear water; the lane rutted with the tracks of a cart in the damp earth. It seems as though it is another world.

The signs of this other world, I realise, are all around me. Traced across the hills are the ribbed lines of ancient walls which would have bounded fields far smaller than they are today. Gateposts, abandoned amongst the rushes like stately megaliths, hint at the complex field patterns which existed before the enclosure of larger and larger fields, the loss of the land from the common people of the villages, the need for larger areas to raise sheep. With the loss of these small fields, the dynamics of agriculture shifted to the production of wool for mills in the south of the county, rather than the growing of food for a hungry rural population. The chatter and laughter would have died from the hills, the children’s' footprints hardened in the drying mud.
As I pass these gateways, abandoned by time and the lack of people who now use the fields, I think of stories from my childhood in which a liminal space – a wardrobe, a doorway, a garden gate – gave entry to another world, a place where time passed differently, where the laws of daily life were suspended. These were worlds in which wicked witches cast spells of ice on the land, or in which hidden gardens sprung to life at midnight. They were places which were magical, enchanted, elysian. I think of these images as I step through abandoned gateways on the open hills, feeling a tug of memory as I run my hands along the tall slates which were drilled by hand to take the rough iron gate hinges. With each passing, I pause for longer in these places where time seems to pass slowly, where ghosts can be heard singing their way to work in the fields, like voices heard on the threshold of sleep; lucid, distant, haunting.
 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Scavenger, Emperor


He is calling again from the field below the lane. In the muddied dusk of evening, I hear his plaintive shriek across the surface of the wind; insistent, hopeful: peeoow, peeoow. He will be down there now, quartering the sedge, tilting into the breeze with a flex of his primary feathers, turning his eye – bigger then mine, sharper, less distorted with age – across the land with practised patience. He will not know that I am looking for him.
His days revolve around the search for food. He is catholic in his scavenging, opportunist; happy to take voles or shrews, frogs in season, carrion when he can find it, when the stench of death is carried on the spring breeze. He rarely hunts. Other, smaller birds are a distraction; larger mammals too fast, too heavy. He chooses the quick catch, the idle pounce.
I have been watching him for months, trying to understand his days. When the westerly rains shadow the fields, I see him hunched in the tree like an old gentleman in a dun-coloured overcoat, patiently waiting out the shower, folded into himself, brooding. The rain sheds from his feathers like mercury.
When the frost lies thick on the fields, I have seen him in the early morning hunkered on the wire in a stillness of waiting. He makes no movement until mid-day, waiting for the air to thaw, letting his leaden wings warm in the pale light of the sun. These days he knows will be hard, the ground stilled and firm, his prey burrowed into their winter holes, waiting for the sun to return. He knows how important it is to conserve energy, to stay on this wire and wait for the food to arrive. He is an expert at waiting.
He tolerates the sparrowhawk like a tribal elder sighing at the antics of the youngsters; part-jester, part-hooligan. The sparrowhawk stays low among the trees, nimble on its wingtips, chasing a different prey. He has no time for its speed and grace, its short-term game. The peregrine which nests in the nearby quarry he acknowledges, however, as though the two of them have a grudge that neither has forgotten. They share the same space of sky, but at different times, avoiding each other's eye.
Last summer, I began to notice a female, too, in these same lanky ash trees. She calls and he comes, ghosting low over the tips of the trees, power and grace in his wings like a withheld anger. The crows and jackdaws birl up to meet him from the trees and chatter at his tail. He jinks away with insouciance, knowing that this is a game, knowing that they will tire of the chase, knowing that he is emperor of the fields. The jackdaws chatter of victory and spill back into the trees while he follows the call of his mate. They share this territory now, he and the female, although I have not yet found their nest, hidden in one of the ivy-clad ashes which line the lane. I imagine them raising their young in this coming spring: the rituals of the evening hunt; the way to fly at dusk as though these fields are part of the domain; the limits of the territory; the power that comes from patience.
I hide under ash trees in the fading light and listen to his call on the evening breeze. I think of other buzzards, other territories beyond the limits of my village, but none that I know as intimately as this one, none I regard with such fraternal forbearance, none that seem to match the patterns of my own footsteps as I walk these fields steeped in winter's rains. His piercing call measures the pace of my steps: peeoow, peeoow, and I feel his presence over my shoulder like a shadow, like an admonition.




Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chiaroscuro



As I leave the stream behind and start the climb towards the ridge of mountains at its head, the afternoon is already thickening to dusk. The sun has been shining, after days in which the mountains have been hidden by cloud, their snow-covered lower slopes rising into the grey like a warning, or like a promise. The snow is days old; it has hardened to a thick crust and makes a crunching sound beneath my feet, like sugar crystallised in a jar.
The head of the valley above me is split by a broad line of shadow which is edging higher as the sun descends below the western ridge. Above me, the lure of sunlit slopes; below, the darkness of the valley, the aubergine tangle of heather darkening the sides of the stream.
Moving into stripes of sunlight, I see that the glittering surface of the snow is pitted with footprints: the asymmetric pattern of the hare; a fox with its tail bobbing behind at each step, a faint brush stroke between the prints; and the tiny dimples of a shrew, barely breaking the surface of the snow, its thin toes splayed against the cold. Mine seem so clumsy in comparison, an intrusion in the remote world of this upper valley, a stranger in this world of birds and wild animals. I follow the steps of the fox for some distance, meandering between tufts of heather and rock outcrops, pausing now and then to pounce, or perhaps just to jump for joy on this day of so much brightness.
As I emerge from shadow onto the sunlit top of the mountain, like a diver breaking the surface for air, a word comes into my mind. Chiaroscuro: the interplay between darkness and light; the contrast which makes a portrait complete; the denseness of shadow which makes the sunlight so pure and brilliant; the days of darkness without which the sunlight would seem banal, mundane. Our lives are shaped around these contrasts, these shifts of mood, this dance of light and shadow which defines mountain regions, the way that our moods can shift from sombre darkness to brilliant clarity in the space of a day.
As I leave the summit and start down the long ridge homewards, four ravens gust from the shelter of the ridge and spill across the mountainside beneath me; dark shapes etched on the pale snow, their voices dark, harsh notes scratched on the peerless blue of the afternoon. They circle and dip in the steely breeze, like fragments blown in the wind, before settling once more amongst the rocks and heather. Further along the ridge, I see a single one which has risen again into flight and is coasting the updraughts of chill air just above me, my tutelary spirit, my reminder of the darkness that makes the day complete. Below me, the valley is already steeped in shadow; the river glows like a thread of gold in the last reflected light of the sun.




Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Entropy

I step into a world in decay; a place where time has crystallised, thickened into a slow-moving torpor. Although the land slopes to the south, opening onto views of familiar hills and the wide meandering river below, it is a disquieting and unfamiliar place, a maze of landforms and woods, spoil heaps and mad-made earth banks, each of which protects a fading asbestos building, protection from blast damage, from the bombs and missiles that were stored within.
I am here to research an article I have been writing, examining the legacy of military and ex-military sites in this wildest of rural areas, thinking how the land which somehow feels part of our birthright has been appropriated, fenced, secluded from view. It is a place which holds an allure purely because of its secrecy; a thousand acres of untouched landscape, untrampled, free from farm chemicals and the everyday clatter of cars and machinery, the dithering of human activity.

Within the fence, there are almost three hundred buildings, most used for military storage, the central group used for research and administration. In each, the doors are missing, the windows smashed, the floor littered with either animal shit or the debris of vandalism and neglect: peeling tiles, smashed fibreboard walls, rusting light fittings.
Dereliction holds a fascination for us because of its inevitability, a visual entropy, as though all things tend to decay, all our grandest endeavours flake and peel into fissile dust, the dull patina of abandonment. Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse, we say, reveling in the surety of our decline, the certainty that the mightiest schemes are those that will fall the soonest, proving once again our desire for nemesis, our frailty and impotence.

Places such as these lose their physical fabric as they rot and collapse, but are peopled by ghosts and echoes that outlive the buildings; fragments of other worlds, other people who worked here, with their individual lives and worries, their families and fears. I think of the stories that accumulate in these places, layers upon layers of human fragility and impermanence, as though each of us sheds a skin in the places we live and work, a microscopic ingredient of the dust which settles on the floors and discarded washbasins, along with the flakes of paint, the particles of asbestos, the pollen from the pine trees which surround the cluster of buildings and which wave, so gently, soundlessly, in the winter breeze.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Solvitur Ambulando

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
SΓΈren Kierkegaard



Wordsworth knew it, as did Coleridge. Thoreau hymned it from his one-roomed cabin at Walden Pond; Chatwin spent his life trying to explain it. As I crouch from the wind on the slopes of this grey-green hill, pausing to watch a kestrel as it dips from the twitch of its flight into the heather below, my walking rhythm is interrupted, and the words that are forming in my mind are stilled. I realise that I have, almost without realising it, been weaving sentences and stanzas in my head in time with the beat of my feet. I briefly grasp the association between words and walking, between language and movement, and feel happy to be here on this hillside, alone, thinking in time with the scuff of my boots.
I am walking out a sense of listlessness which comes with the turning of the year, the end of the holidays, the pall of cloud which has hung for days over the hills. I am walking out my need for air and daylight, however faint, filtered through layers of stratonimbus. I am walking out my inability to write, the words not coming in the way that they should, my mind grasping for phrases which are seen as though through the thick hill mist which surrounds me on this walk; indistinct, unfocused. I am doing what I have done for the whole of my life when unsure of what to do next; I am going for a walk.
It is a pleasure to be out on a day like this; the mist clustered round the top of the fells, a chill wind driving over the pass from the west. I am completely alone, sequestered in mist, aloof from the noise of the world, lost in thought. Two ravens lift from the sedge, heavy in their restlessness, and coast sideways on a cushion of wind. Their scratchy croaaack is lost as they slip from view over the ridge.
Walking is a natural way to induce thought, a simple iambic rhythm which is as familiar as the beat of our hearts: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. It is a rhythm which is known to us from childhood poems and popular songs, as comforting as the click-clack of railway tracks or the gentle rocking on a parent's knee. Our lives have grown with this two-tone beat, and it is replicated by walking; our language reflects it when we talk of writing having pace and metre. Even if the best lines, the most memorable phrases evaporate as soon as one stops, walking can imprint on the mind a train of thought which survives long enough to get home and dash some words into the notebook.
As I descend from the hills, walking the long ridge of yellowed grass towards the valley, a single red grouse stutters from the heather and drifts low over the bog pools and mosses, its wings fluttering nervously, brown against the brown of the moor. I feel the tiredness in my legs that is like a wanton ache, a physical memory of the day. I think of it as a kind of writer's cramp, a sign that my mind has been working out the words, my legs keeping pace with the beat, my mood lightening with the miles. It can be solved by walking.