This has been a wonderful week for walking in the hills hereabouts. The air is fragrant, the fields full of young lambs, and the light has been exhilarating. Last Sunday evening a fleet of towering rainclouds sailed over the valley casting ever-changing shadow patterns across the land, and pouring much needed water on to the parched moors. Apart from reviving sphagnum that was beginning to resemble straw, this may well have stopped illegal fires being set. Snigging was once a common spring pastime round here. Moorland fires may look spectacular, but they damage vegetation and peat, release carbon into the atmosphere, destroy the nests of birds such as skylarks, curlews, snipe, short eared owls, and twite (if we have any left), and kill elusive small creatures such as emperor and northern eggar moths.
Yesterday evening looked less promising, but, acting on an astrological hunch, I set off for a favourite wooded valley. The sky was uniform pale grey. Beneath the trees there was barely enough light to appreciate the drifts of bluebells and wild garlic. Climbing above the wood a stone flagged packhorse track leads across more or less flat fields where I paused to take in the view. A small black cat emerged from the trees and stared at me, but didn’t want to socialise. Beneath my feet the diminutive yellow flowers of tormentil shone in the grass. There was quite a lot of pignut in flower.
A couple of fields away two pairs of lapwings performed an elegant sky dance -a ‘display’ of May-time contentment and no doubt amorous, domestic, and territorial satisfaction- that involved each bird looping up in turn, about thirty feet into the air, in an elliptical circle, and giving a single high pitched call. The rythm of their choreography was mesmerising from a distance, so must have felt brilliant to perform. The silence was occasionally broken by distant curlews, the odd pheasant or grouse, and on one occasion by a raucous gaggle of cyclists charging down a lane shouting and laughing. I could still hear them when they were half a mile away.
I had hoped to catch a woodcock roding, but probably left too early. Note to self: next time you’re out in a wooded area at dusk TAKE A TORCH! I was not dissapointed though. Looking roughly north-north-west (we’re only about a month from the summer solstice here, after all) I watched as the pale grey cloud bank began to break up and change colour. Sitting on a comfortable rock I ‘tuned in’, accompanied by the crystalline voice of a song thrush.
Returning to this world, I stood watching the hills across the valley. Then, quite suddenly, as though a giant hand had flicked an invisible switch, the entire crest the distant moorland ridge was bathed in pale orange light. As the light became warmer, the illuminated area gradually receded until only a small distant tip burned red. Then the sun was gone, leaving an incandescent afterglow in the sky, and for the second time this week, a steady vertical column of light, shining down.
B.T 19th May 2017.
I’ve decided to let Animist Jottings go into ‘hibernation’ for a while, so that I can get on with other things. I have some more material pending (on a certain D.Trump, for instance) but have yet to decide what form it needs to take. If articles appear elsewhere I’ll post notifications and/or links.
I’ve enjoyed blogging here, and have met some lovely fellow travellers en-route, but northern hemisphere summer is coming, and it feels like time to move on … for the time being at least.
Au revoir, and may the common good prevail.
“Nature’s particular gift to the walker … is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -certainly creative and supersensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you while you are talking back to it. Then everything seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season … till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human communication’. Kenneth Graham, ‘The Fellow that Goes Alone’, 1913.*
I’m always been fond of walking alone, or with friends who share my appreciation of a profoundly communicative more-than-human world. Sometimes, the rythm of walking can induce a dream like receptivity. At other times stress, distraction, illness, or injury, intrude upon the flow of body and mind. Going out with close friends who have lost their mobility, and having fallen -twice- last year, has sharpened my appreciation of this simple, or perhaps not so simple, act and art.
The first fall happened one day last autumn. I was tired and distracted, and on the spur of the moment decided, uncharacteristically, that walking fast felt good.** As my body charged ahead my mind went blank. Not creatively adrift, completely blank. A jolt ricocheted through my body. I had been upended by a high kerb stone and was diving through the air. In a horrible parody of one of those goal celebrations where a footballer slides balletically across the turf, I flung my arms forwards and juddered to a halt, face down, on a gritty pavement. Blood was pouring across my hand and over my fingers, and my knees hurt. Luckily that was about it. Staunching the flow with a tissue I walked on to the house of a friend who was dealing with the aftermath of a much more serious event, patched myself up a bit, and then, switching off the discomfort, went for a short walk with her.
Shock set in the next day, so I was relieved to hear from two men friends that they’d also had falls recently. One had broken a thumb in the local park -no doubt in the steep muddy wood- while doing conservation work. Two other friends have fallen on ice and broken wrists in recent years. This is partly an age thing- but not entirely. I also heard that a much younger man had come a cropper on a muddy slope when out botanising. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, a few weeks later, when walking home through a local wood that I’ve known for forty years I once again switched off mentally and lost my footing on a wet rock. Whoosh! This time I fell on my back, re-opening the nearly healed hand wound for a while, but apart from that, there was no real damage.
This afternoon, while walking down a section of the Pennine Way, we saw three cows with a very young calf, beside the track ahead of us. Not least because of the proliferation of ‘Cows with Calves can be Aggressive’ notices that have sprung up in recent years, and because on another occasion my well meaning attempt to skirt round a grazing herd was misinterpreted by them as a reason to stampede -fortunately briefly, and not in my direction- (a Countryfile report in 2014 advised walkers to stay well clear of calves, and noted dogs are percieved as more of a threat than humans -see also here)- I felt slightly concerned. I mention this because today’s uneventful encounter reminded me of something that happened last year.
One late July evening as I was making my way up a steep and winding packhorse track, looking down in order to navigate the uneven cobbled surface, I drifted into a dreamy receptive state. Then, according to my diary, a very definite and clear thought, almost a voice, came into my head. The ‘voice’, which was accompanied by a feeling of immense peace and beauty, said “What would you do if you met a great big bull just round the corner?” I replied by thinking quietly: “Hello bull. I mean you no harm.” Whereupon, I looked up to my left and saw, sillhouetted against the sky, what I soon realised was the underside of a very real bull, looking down at me from not more than twenty feet away.
He turned out to be calm, and was doubtless much more interested in the cow who was gazing at him from across the path. So I walked slowly towards them and stopped, turning my back to the bull -to show him I wasn’t interested in him, get my breath back, and look at the view. There was no way of walking round the cattle, so I decided to walk on, between him and the much more nervous cow. Only when I got much further up did I stop again, and realise how hard my heart was thumping.
I don’t share Kenneth Graham’s pessimism about human communication, but quite like his description of walking ‘in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk’. Whether it came from the bull himself, or from some helpful other-than-human person, the telepathic alert I received that summer evening enabled me to stay calm in a situation I would otherwise have been quite apprehensive about.
B.T. 7th May 2017.
*quoted in Hugh Thompson, The Green Road into the Trees, A Walk Through England.
**Fellow astrologers will not be surprised to hear that Mars and Pluto were involved.
On a trip to Manchester this week I was shocked by the number of homeless people, many of them quite young adults, begging on the streets. A group of women carrying sheets of cardboard and tatty quilts. Men sitting on the pavement, lost to the world. More than I’ve seen in over forty years of occasional visits to that city. The tent encampment in the photograph above (one of many that have sprung up in recent years) is less than a quarter of a mile from a building site where hoardings announce the impending arrival of a 30 storey tower of luxury apartments ‘with unrivalled 360 degree views’. And now we have Theresa May, a Tory Prime Minister, claiming she runs “a government that is working for everyone and for every part of the country.”
My younger self had some involvement in housing action in Manchester in the early 1970’s, when at least there was a lot of council house building, and a relatively more equal distribution of wealth. Today’s escalating housing crisis, which visible street homelessness is only one part of, has been driven by a raft of draconican legislation coupled with cuts in welfare benefits and local government budgets. The net result of this is that mutual respect between the super rich, or indeed the affluent, and those cast out beyond the increasingly shredded safety net of the welfare state becomes almost unimaginable.
As I was walking along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal beyond Castlefields, a young man approached me. His manner was friendly, and he was evidently quite excited about something he wanted to show me. I asked him what it was, but he couldn’t seem to find any words to describe it – so I offered to go and have a look. We hurried to a spot about 50 yards further along, where he pointed urgently across the canal. I scanned the opposite bank, which was covered with scrubby trees and detritus, but still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Then I saw it. Standing, stock still, and blending in with the background vegetation. A heron. When I told him what it was, his face broke into a radiant smile. This was his first heron! What a privilege to share a moment like that.
As he went on his way, I hoped he’d be o.k. After all, we’ve been ‘told’ often enough how dangerous young black men are …
B.T. 25th March 2017.
On a dull morning last weekend I noticed that some trees at the top of the hill were looking uncharacteristically white. Climbing up towards them I found myself walking in much colder air. This was, clearly, a temperature inversion. All the trees up there were coated in hoar frost -surely one of the most beautiful spectacles of the more-than-human world, even when unlit by sunshine.
I walked across some frozen fields to a beech wood, and stood transfixed amongst illuminated branches. My sense of having been transported to another world was heightened by the complete lack of frost in the valley below. I hope these images (double click to enlarge) give a rough idea of what I saw.
As someone who has always been open to such experience I’m genuinely puzzled that some of my fellow humans seem to be unmoved by aesthetic experience. At a time when so much anthropogenic chaos is being unleashed upon the rest of nature, its re-assuring to know that there are very many others who appreciate, and are working to protect, the integrity, diversity, and yes, beauty, of nonhuman life.
On another recent walk I came upon these marvellously coiled oak trees, emerging from a rock outcrop. Their serpentine forms exude a strength and confidence developed during lives spent responding to the prevailing currents of Westerly winds that must regularly pour down from the fields above.
I’ve always liked the muted tones of winter, and the patterns formed by sleeping trees. But I also find a harsher pared-down beauty in the open moors and upland pasture that surrounds my home town. In spring, when the birds return, there is an obvious kind of beauty -not least in the song of skylarks- but at this time of the year there is still the slightly uncanny beauty of shifting cloud forms, of varying density, that brush across the land, concealing and revealing. Here lastly, then, is an image (with no trees) of a restored section of packhorse track, which I like because of its ambiguity. Was I walking up towards the clouds, or down into a fog bank?
B.T. 31st January 2017.
“In recasting “haiku as poetic spell”, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.”
Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell*
It matters little that Wing Beats was published eight years ago. This beautifully produced collection of 323 Haiku, all of which are ‘solidly grounded in actual experience’, has lasting value. The poems reflect moments in the lives of, we are told, 131 of the 570 species of British Birds listed by the British Ornithologists Union. This is, necesssarily then, a local project. One American viewer was baffled, for instance, by the word tormentil (a small yellow flower that is quite common where I live). As someone who is familar with, and very fond of, British flora and fauna, though, I find that many of the poems work well as evocations. They brim with what the seventeenth century naturalist Gilbert White called nice (exact, meticulous) observation of our avian neighbours, whilst Sean Gray’s monochrome illustrations depict each species so convincingly that I’ve been quite surprised that some of his birds haven’t flown up from the page.
The medium of haiku -characterised, according to sources to hand, by immediacy, precision, concreteness (no overt use of metaphor or symbolism), restraint, open-endedness, suggestion rather than explication, and an effacement of human emotional response- elicits slow contemplative reading. This is not a book to be rushed.
For readers unfamiliar with the evolving tradition of English language haiku poetry, or with British Birds, there is a useful introduction and a series of informative appendices on taxonomy, naming conventions, the process of compiling the anthology, and (a substantial essay) on season words (kigo). The latter includes interesting comparisons between the avifauna of Britain and Japan, where the associations between various birds and particular times of the year are ‘deeply rooted in haiku tradition’. Matsuo Bashō often wrote about birds. British cultural tradition is, of course, also rich in seasonal lore, not least that surrounding ‘the old pagan holidays’.
Interestingly, an early conception of the project was for a book of crow haiku (!) “twisting back from the mythic legacy of Hughes to include Bashō’s famous ‘crow’ haiku”. Although John Barlow and Matthew Paul chose instead to emphasise ‘the real’, ‘to celebrate the commonplace, the local, the everyday’ and reflect ‘the geography, geology, history, and flora of the British landscape’, they clearly believe that the sensory moments they celebrate ‘refresh the human spirit’. Stephen Moss, in his Foreword, talks about an underlying indefineable connection with wild creatures ‘the true meaning of which is perhaps known only to our hearts’, and writes that the poems help us reconnect in a deeper, more intense, way, -though ‘an element of mystery remains’.
The quotation (epigraph above) from Martin Lucas -who was a colleague and friend of the editors, and a keen birdwatcher- is taken from an essay in which he likened haiku to ‘a poetic spell’, in which words ‘chime’, ‘beat’, and ‘flow’, have power, and when spoken like a charm, cannot be forgotten. This recalls Ted Hughes’s conception of poetic magic, though Hughes took the idea further, believing that sufficiently well crafted words could summon an animal, or spirit. In suggesting that there were other kinds of poetic spell, however, Martin Lucas did leave open the question of what form these might take.
I like this book very much, but a critical voice in me found the lack of an author index frustrating, and would like to have seen more than a couple of passing references to the crisis affecting so many bird species. The scale of the loss of many once common species is perhaps more evident now than it was in 2008? (See, for instance here). I’m all in favour of celebrating the beauty of the living world. It seems to me that many of these haiku have the attributes of Martin Lucas’s ‘magical utterances’, that they have been crafted from the numinosity of nature, and crucially for me, they foreground the agency of other-than-human protagonists. But its now quite widely accpeted, not least in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism as well as amongst contemporary animists, that celebration needs to happen in a context that tells truths about both the impact of human cultures, especially those framed by global capitalism and late modernity, on other sentient species, and attends to the deathward facing/katabatic aspect of cosmic nature. This is something that Ted Hughes, at his best, arguably achieved.
I borrowed a copy of Wing Beats from my friend Jo Pacsoo, who has a haiku in the book (and several others here). Elsewhere she has made effective use of the haibun form, in which haiku are embedded in similarly succinct and controlled prose, allowing personal and/or political context to be elaborated.
But enough from my inner critic. I would wholeheartedly reccomend this anthology to anyone who knows, and cares about, British birds. There is a lot to be said for the understated phenomenological precision of haiku as a way of responding to, and evoking, the depth and complexity of the living world. Taken together, the poems in Wing Beats constitute a valuable repository of testimony to human appreciation of, and respect for, wild land and the multi species communities we are fast losing. Amid an unceasing deluge of apocalytic news, there is, surely, a pressing need for practices and sites of quiet contemplation and celebration.
B.T. 26th of September 2016.
John Barlow and Matthew Paul, eds.Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, Snapshot Press (2008).
Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell, a paper delivered at the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009.
Jo Pacsoo, Chiaoscuro, and Earth, Time, Water, and Sky, both from Palores Publications, Redruth.
“Our hats are standard bowlers, painted white and decorated with flowers and jewellery. Six strands of navy blue ribbon, about three feet long, are attached to the hatband at the back – and can make a nuisance of themselves when we dance in strong winds, as they wrap themselves around arms, garlands and faces.
We wear white collarless shirts, with a gold sash that goes twice around the waist in the style of a cummerbund and is tied and pinned at the inside hip.
We also wear a red sash that goes over the inside shoulder and is pinned at the outside hip. This asymmetric arrangement of the sashes means that you are dancing in either the left hand or the right hand file – but not both, at least not in any one ‘spot’. (Unless you’ve tried it, you would not believe how long it takes to put those sashes on!)
Our breeches are navy blue corduroy, with three gilt (brass) buttons on the outside of each leg just above the hem.
Our footwear is the traditional black clogs that are one of the trademarks of the North West Morris dance …”.
After a long, dark, wet, mild winter, punctuated by horrible flooding that left a tangle of human and environmental challenges in its wake, the return of spring has been eagerly awaited in the valley. A fine gathering of morris teams lifted our spirits recently. They were all good, but I particularly liked the floral hats worn by Rumworth Morris from Bolton. (the above comes from their website.)
We’re just back from another trip to Wharfedale, where the woodland floors were jewelled with violets, primroses, and wood anemones. There’s something special about the colour of primroses. The name apparently derives from the Old French Primerose, or the medieval Latin, prima rosa, first rose. It comes as no surprise to find them associated with love, protection, and faery lore. In North Yorkshire spring garlands of green leaves, primroses, and buttercups, were made to welcome spring, and confer good fortune.(1)
Robert Graves declared that ‘the lotus crowned goddess in the Corinthian Mysteries … must be worshipped in her ancient quintuple person, whether by counting the petals of lotus or primrose, as Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose, and Death’.(2) Fiveness is said to be about ‘the creation of order out of chaos, bringing together things that are naturally separate into a formal relationship with one another’ (3). In alchemy the quintessence is present in the four elements, not as a separate substance, but as the pre-exisiting spirit which all possess in common, and by which they are united. (4)
But Spring is also a site of struggle. Other-than-human-persons don’t spend all their time ‘respecting’ each other. We watched female bee-flies, hovering, their long proboscises dangling ahead of them, depositing eggs, with a sudden darting movement, into the nest holes of solitary bees. The larval stage of bombyliidae parasitises bees, wasps, or beetles -but (I find myself speaking as the anthropocentrically judgemental liberal here) some varieties redeem themselves as important pollinators.
We also came upon a contented looking Stinking Helleborine, that, like the primrose, embodies fiveness in its petal-like sepals. The stinking helleborine’s flowers are, however, tinged with maroon, and it sometimes smells of wet dog, alerting us, hopefully, to the disconcerting fact that the plant contains toxins that can induce nausea, vomiting, diahorrea, headaches, mental confusion, numbness of extremities, hypotension, muscular spasms, cardiorespiratory failure, and finally death. Some of the poisons can be absorbed through the skin. see here.
I was not in any mood to dwell upon katabatic powers, however. Pulled on by April sunshine, I embarked upon what turned out to be the longest walk that my rather challenged body has managed in many a year with no small help from the invigorating powers and presences of the Wharfedale landscape. Birks Fell, a beautiful hill with an elongated ‘snout’ resembling the prow of an upturned boat, or perhaps the tail of a limestone whale, formed by, and marking, the confluence of the Wharfe and Skirfare, pulled my heart strings from across the finely sculpted valley, and put a spring in my step.
(1) Margaret Baker Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Shire.
(2) Robert Graves, The White Goddess.
(3) David Hamblin, Harmonic Charts, A New Dimension in Astrology.
(4) Paul F. Cowlan An Alchemical Countdown; The Quintessence, Four Elements, Tria Prima, etc, Alembic, 2010.