Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fractal geometry and the river of life


From my ledge of moss, I gaze at the hillside across the valley. The grey of the scree is broken by remnants of grass and heather; patches of green in an ocean of stone. All lines tend towards the stream which flows from a couple of springs emerging from the scree; the starting point of mountain becks which gather and build westwards; springs turning to streams turning to rivers turning, finally, to the sea.
I have been indoors for too long, kept from the hills by the endless legions of low pressure systems which barrel in from the Irish Sea, one after another, like racehorses loosed from a starting gate. The wind has been almost constant; an aching drone in the fabric of the house, a hushing in the trees above the garden; it is a restless other, a presence in the dark of the night, a reminder of the force and omnipotence of the weather. From the hillside where I now sit, I can see the gathering dark of storm clouds signalling the arrival of the next weather front. I turn my eyes back to the hillside.
I am thinking of fractals; that geometric phenomenon where each whole is made up from ever-diminishing smaller versions of the same shape. As I look at the flank of Skiddaw, grey beneath a greyer sky, I lose the scale of the mountain, so that I could be looking at forests in a stone desert, or green patches on a hillside, or tiny lichenous growths on the side of small fragment of stone. A few days prior to my tea break on Skiddaw, walking across the fields at the edge of my village, I had flushed a hundred or more starlings from the skeleton of an ash tree, watched them billowing into flight, hurled sideways by the buffeting of the wind. I was struck again by the way in which birds behave in a flock; that ability to turn together as though connected by invisible threads. It is as if the birds know their position in the flock, as though they are each a single feather in a complete, beautiful sweep of wing. In the past few days, I have noticed again and again the enigmatic ability of nature to replicate itself at all scales: the way in which the individual trees in a wood lean together like the limbs of a single tree; the pillowed perfection of storm clouds as they build above the house, huge plumes made of smaller plumes; the mazed lines of map lichen on a slate boulder, looking like a landscape viewed from far in the air.


The final months of 2013 were a trial for me. I had worked too hard and too long, and fell into an extended period of low-level illness, burnt out and exhausted, incapable of seeing anything beyond the end of my bed or my desk, unable to write, spent of words. My mind retreated into a form of hibernation, dulled by the futility of communication, smothered by the incessant clamour of the trivial. This walk on the local hills, this gazing at a hillside of scree, seems part of a wider process of rehabilitation; learning to see once again, learning to taste the texture of words in my mouth once more. I yearned for periods in which I did not look at a book or a screen, but could gaze to the far horizon, as though 'longing' became a metaphysical desire for distance, for wide views of far hills, paling in the grey of evening.
Learning to write again has involved learning to see. In the depths of my tiredness, I could barely endure the effort needed to gaze into the distance, as though the perfection of the world outside was more than the soul could bear. In climbing this mountain today, I realise that it is not only my leg muscles which have grown tired through disuse. The muscles of my eyes need training, too; they need to scan slowly and carefully across these open hillsides, to pick out the details of rocks and mosses, to dwell absently on the changing colours of a winter hillside. A fractal set has been described as 'the same from near as from far'; a reminder of the changes in scale we need to make our lives whole and complete.


I descended from the hilltops by a narrow stream gorge; a deep moss-filled ravine thick with the viridian lushness of woodrush, largely untrodden by people. The stream rises from a bog pool on the moorland I have just crossed; a black sedge-lined pond from which a thin runnel of peaty water tips over the edge of the moor and gathers pace as a mountain stream. It gives me a strange satisfaction, this knowledge that I have followed the stream from its source, watched it build in volume and pace, heard the hiss of running water turn to a rush, to a roar, to a deep echoing hush. Rivers often appear in stories as a metaphor for the turns and pace-changes of an eventful life, and I believe in a moment of fancy that my purpose is no more than to follow this stream downhill, noting the falls and meanders, until, climbing the heathery sides of the gorge, I can gratefully send it on its way, downstream, beyond.



10 comments:

  1. Good to see you back Ian and a beautiful, heartfelt and thought provoking post. Glad that the eyes are once again seeing and feeding the words. Best wishes.

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    1. Thank you! It seems like a ling time away from the words. i hope you are finding time to think and write; I so enjoyed the last few posts of yours; they seem so full of ideas that could be explored a much greater length

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  2. Lovely post Ian. I'm glad your Skiddaw trip has left you rejuvinated in body, as well as in mind. There is something invigorating and elemental about being out in the landscape in winter; something about the combination of light, the elements, the palette of colours and their interaction with our physiological make-up.

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    1. Thanks, Eddie. You may have pre-empted a future blog post - I'm toying with an unwritten piece about the uniqueness of winter colours and light. Even with the recent awful weather, there has been plenty to see and appreciate

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  3. A moving and thoughtfully honest post, Ian. As I hadn't seen a new post from you for a while, I actually dropped by this morning to wish you a wondrous and creative year, and to let you know that I was looking forward to settling down with your essay 'Flow' this weekend over at The Island Review. Instead I find you doing that thing that I admire so much in your work, bringing an intimacy with land to bear on the tender and shifting complexities of self. I hope the seeing and words continue to be restored.

    Best wishes,

    Julian

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    1. Thanks, Julian - and a happy new year to you too. It has been a tough time, not being able to write, barely being able to enjoy being out-of-doors. I am determined to give more time to writing in 2014. Possibly even (whisper it quietly) to think about a book. I have enjoyed your recent posts too - glad to see you are 'in the flow' as it were. I hope you enjoy the Island review piece, too

      all best wishes

      Ian

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  4. Beautiful and relatable, Ian. I was especially taken by your thoughts on longing. May you continue to feel better and see clearer in the new year!

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    1. Thanks to you! I hope you enjoy the anthology 'A sky full of rain' also

      with all best wishes

      Ian

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  5. This is a very beautiful post. "It gives me a strange satisfaction, this knowledge that I have followed the stream from its source, watched it build in volume and pace, heard the hiss of running water turn to a rush, to a roar, to a deep echoing hush. Rivers often appear in stories as a metaphor for the turns and pace-changes of an eventful life, and I believe in a moment of fancy that my purpose is no more than to follow this stream downhill, noting the falls and meanders, until, climbing the heathery sides of the gorge, I can gratefully send it on its way, downstream, beyond." Sigh...

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    1. Thanks for your kind words - I'm glad you've enjoyed it

      Ian

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