Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points. DT SUZUKI

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Slime Kings And Mud Grenades

An orgy of frogs in our garden pond today.

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it. 


Friday, 20 March 2015

Moon Shadow

Astronomy on the cheap.

Between 8.30 and 10.30 today the moon passed before the sun to produce a near-total solar eclipse. It was a cloudless morning here in the English Midlands, with the sun too bright to look at. Gradually the temperature dropped and the sky darkened. Shadows lengthened and colours veered towards the red end of the spectrum. At around 9.30 — the climax of the eclipse — it became very still and the atmosphere quite eerie. Birds perched in the trees, perhaps fooled into thinking that night was approaching. Despite the oppressive moon shadow, it still remained fairly light. It had been impossible to buy any special safety glasses, so we tried the colander viewing technique. I'm not sure this was completely successful, but at least our retinas stayed intact. As the sun strengthened and the moon stole away, the birds started singing again — including a robin on our car roof.

It's also the spring equinox, so the hours of light and dark are equal. And there's a perigee new moon, or supermoon, which occurs when a new moon coincides orbitally with its nearest point to earth. This conjunction of spring equinox, supermoon and solar eclipse is most unusual, and I feel pleased to have witnessed such a rare cosmic event.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Yorkshire Wolds Way: The Humber Bridge To North Ferriby

Almost a year ago I finished walking the Viking Way, a 147 mile footpath tracing a country route from Oakham in Rutland to the Humber Bridge. Now it was time to continue — for every ending is just another beginning. 

On the far side of the Humber lies the start of the Yorkshire Wolds Way, an 80 mile route across chalk hills and dales to Filey Brigg on the North Sea; and this is a prelude to the 110 mile Cleveland Way, which follows the cliff edge to Saltburn, then curls round to Helmsley over the North York Moors. (Britain's enviable network of paths and trails is intricately connected — for example, the 192 mile Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees to Robin's Hood Bay twice intersects the Cleveland Way.) 

So yesterday I stood once again at the foot of the Humber Bridge, at one time the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, now the seventh-longest. Like before, the day was dull, grey and misty. I did wonder for a moment what on earth I was doing there, when I could have been sitting at home by the fireside with a good book. However, pushing such thoughts aside, I left the car at Waters' Edge Country Park in Barton-upon-Humber and resolutely set off. It was cold, but I was wearing a merino wool base layer, technical long-sleeved top, two fleeces, hat, gloves and neck warmer, so I was well protected. From the bridge this is the view of the south bank of the river . . . 

. . . and this is the view of Hessle on the north bank. The eastern horizon, where sky and water meet, was barely discernible through the murk.

Three grindstones lie in front of a whiting mill next to the Humber Bridge Country Park. The tower, built in 1806 from brick coated with tar, would originally have had five sails. Wind drove the sails which drove the stones which crushed the chalk from a nearby quarry. The crushed chalk slurry was settled and dried and then used in paint, ink and putty. Larger pieces of chalk from the nearby hills (or wolds) were used for housebuilding. 

The embankment trail led west for two and a half miles to North Ferriby (opposite South Ferriby on the other side of the river; there was once a ferry between the two). The setting was quite bleak. Colours were muted and spring seemed far off. A string of waders fed by the water's edge and a long sandbank paralleled the shore.

As I approached North Ferriby I came upon this memorial: an outline of an ancient wooden boat. Between the 1930s and the 1960s three boats were excavated here which proved to date from the Bronze Age — one of them the oldest seagoing boat that has ever been discovered (c. 2030 BC). They are now housed in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

I would have to have waited fifty minutes on a draughty platform for a train back to Hessle, so I walked instead. As the Humber Bridge emerged from the gloom, I watched a flock of geese fly over and a solitary oystercatcher probe the shoreline. Spears of teasel, scrubby clumps of buddleia, a single flowering gorse and a line of stunted ash trees — their branches tipped with sooty buds — bordered the path. The railway ran alongside, and my train overtook me. Unsightly scraps of litter — presumably thrown by rail passengers — strewed the no man's land between track and path.  

Despite the dismal weather I had enjoyed the walk — in the end it had been around nine miles, including the bridge crossing. But I felt weary, and was aching in various muscles and joints. Clearly the winter had made me too soft and housebound. A recent virus plus a tooth infection had also curtailed my usual walking, and I felt rusty and out of practice. Driving home I found myself wishing fervently for a warm springtime day.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sacred Britain

The Church of St John the Baptist, Glastonbury. In the churchyard is a thorn tree grown from a cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn. A blossom from this tree is sent to the Queen every Christmas.

I'm very much enjoying Martin and Nigel Palmer's Sacred Britain: A Guide to the Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes of England, Scotland and Wales. The scope of the book is dizzying; it's astonishing how much ritual and religious history overlays the landscape of this small island. The pilgrim routes described take you to Neolithic henges and long barrows, Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age hill forts, Celtic groves and holy wells, early Saxon churches and Viking crosses. Though the routes are aimed at the motorist, it would be fun to trace alternative, more authentic ways along ancient paths and tracks.
One of the paths up Glastonbury Tor.

The Palmers' sympathies lie with pre-Synod of Whitby Celtic Christianity rather than the Romanised version, which is where my own sympathies lie too. They are good at showing how cultures clash but eventually integrate, and how paganism and Christianity intermingle (it's well known, for example, that our word for 'Easter' derives from the Germanic pagan goddess, 'Eostre'). 

View from the Tor: the ethereal Vale of Avalon.

All this brought back to mind last year's visit to Glastonbury: the British epicentre of Christian myth, Celtic lore and pagan legend.

The tower of St Michael's Church on Glastonbury Tor.

One story goes that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy trader and Jesus' uncle, came to Glastonbury and built a church there (on the site of the present abbey ruins) made of wattle — thus creating the first Christian community in Britain. He was also supposed to have carried with him the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and containing some of Christ's blood. This was hidden by Joseph of Arimathea in the Chalice Well Gardens and later discovered by King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table — giving rise to the Arthurian Grail legends.

Red Spring waters flow through the Chalice Well Gardens.

The Palmers' view of Glastonbury . . .

Today Glastonbury remains its enigmatic self. Here you can find the highest concentration of religious nonsense and spiritual tat in Britain. But you can also find people who are working to make sense of an insensitive world, who find here a place of great spiritual power and who have helped us rediscover the sacredness of this landscape — sacredness which is actually a quintessential fusion between the old Celtic and earliest Christian traditions.

. . . recalled my own feelings about the town . . .

In the middle of September we spent a long weekend in Glastonbury. Yes, between festivals Glastonbury town is alive, well and gently stoned: it's a haven for spiritual seekers and old hippies at any time of year. I liked it a lot but, amid the welter of New Age flummery and soul chic, found it hard to distinguish between the real and the sham, the true and the fake, the non-material and the commercial.

Shrine in the Chalice Well Gardens.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Landscape And Memory

The past is never dead. It's not even past.
I was transfixed by the TV series A History of Britain and Simon Schama's Power of Art, but this is the first time I've read any of Schama's books. Landscape and Memory —which was also made into a TV series — has been on my bucket reading list for some time. I was not disappointed, though I struggled with some of the detailed digressions which form the book's main narrative. But this is to quibble. It's a bold and compelling work, magnificent even — immense in its knowledge, broad in its scholarship, crackling with humour, enthusiasm, sophistication and irreverence. His prose is poetic and inventive — Schama is no dull academic or art historian. He revels in the quirky, colourful details of history, delighting in revealing the foibles and vanities of humanity, and laying bare, both mercilessly and affectionately, our well-intentioned, ill-intentioned and haphazard human endeavours.

The book explores the intimate relationship human beings have with the landscape: how we mould the landscape and how the landscape moulds us; how we inescapably view the landscape through the prisms of culture, history, myth and imagination. This can be a bad thing, but it is by no means always a bad thing. Nature and culture, the primitive and the pastoral, the wild and the civilised, the rural and the urban, rough scrub and cultivated garden, Schama argues, exist together and always have done — ever since hunter-gathering nomads became the first settlers.

Literary and artistic heroes emerge from these pages — Ruskin, Turner and Thoreau for example — though none can evade the barbs of Schama's ironic wit. He is particularly good at skewering vainglorious characters in history — such as Gutzon Borglum, the Ku Klux Klan card-carrying sculptor responsible for the presidents' heads on Mount Rushmore — and exposing their eccentricities, egocentricities and territorial greeds. A forest is never a forest in Schama's eyes — but the scene of murder and mayhem, economic exploitation, colonial expansion. A river is never a river and a mountain never a mountain — but symbols of nationalism, of religious or political conviction, or manifestations of psychological states. For much of humankind, trees, streams and rocks are not simply trees, streams and rocks, but come loaded with all kinds of cultural, political, mythic and religious  associations. Rousseau's child of nature remains an impossibly romantic ideal; and Thoreau's wilderness is always subtly tamed and humanised (Thoreau would not have wanted it any other way).

In one sense, at least, I have tried to keep faith with Thoreau's aversion to running after the esoteric, and with his conviction that the whole world can be revealed in our backyard if only we give it our proper attention. But the backyard I have walked through — sauntered through, Thoreau might exclaim — is the garden of the Western landscape imagination: the little fertile space in which our culture has envisioned its woods, waters, and rocks, and where the wildest of myths have insinuated themselves into the lie of our land. For that matter, there are places even within the boundaries of a modern metropolitan sprawl where the boundaries between past and present, wild and domestic, collapse altogether. Below the hilltop clearing where my house stands are drystone walls, the remains of a vanished world of sheep-farming and dairying, made destitute a century ago. The walls now trail across a densely packed forest floor, hidden from view by a second growth canopy of tulip trees, white ash, and chestnut-leaf oak. From the midst of this suburban wilderness, in the hours before dawn, barely a fairway away from the inevitably manicured country club, coyotes howl at the moon, setting off a frantic shrieking from the flocks of wild turkey hidden in the covers. This is Thoreau's kind of suburb.

SIMON SCHAMA Landscape and Memory          

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Rebecca Solnit: Metaphor And Migration

I'm very much drawn to the mind and writings of Californian author, activist, feminist, environmentalist and cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, and her way of seeing the world. If a book is extra-special, I often find myself marking passages, taking notes, copying out quotations. The reason is: I don't want such exciting thoughts and ideas, such arresting tropes and expressions, simply to disappear into the ether. I want my memory to be jogged; and these joggings prompt me back into the lush experience of the whole book.

Recently I read through some notes I'd made on A Book of MigrationsSolnit's book about Ireland. You can't really call her travel books 'travel' books; they are an uncategorisable pot pourri of history, geography, politics, anthropology, ecology, environmentalism, personal anecdote and first-hand experience — so different from the gimmicky, laugh-a-minute, populist travelogues of the Bill Bryson school. A Book of Migrations is full of penetrating insights, sharp and fresh observations, imaginative connections. She writes beautifully, finding metaphor in everything. Her phrases and figures of speech can be lyrical and poetic, though she also has her feet placed firmly on the ground. And sometimes she reveals a wry sense of humour, casting an owlishly beady eye on the world.

Here are some of my marginalia and brief jottings; I hope they stimulate you too.

Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place.

One climbs the mountain to see the valley.

Walking round the Dublin Natural History Museum, Solnit sees the stuffed animals as imperial souvenirs, and calls the museum itself a lexicon of form.

She calls metaphors the transportation systems of the mind (brilliant, this, I think). Metaphors are the way we make connections between disparate things, the way we make creative sense of the world. Machines can not make these intuitive, aesthetic connections. We make contact with Creation through metaphor. The first symbols were animals, then plants, then words. Human beings first as nomads (birds), then settlers (trees).

Every cell in the human body is renewed every seven years.

Travel: a series of discomforts in magnificent settings.

Contrast between Academia and New Ageism: the Academic accentuates too many distinctions between cultures; the New Ager blurs too many differences between cultures. Solnit seeks the middle ground between what she terms the fuzzy (New Age) and the icy (Academe).

Nietzsche says that truth is a metaphor we have forgotten is a metaphor.

Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery. (An American wildlife expert.)

Two things are alike up to the point of their differences.

Masculine England and feminine Ireland (Ireland raped by England).

The freemasonry of the road.

Things seen to rise gradually out of their surroundings are infinitely more real than things which suddenly bump up in front of one.

She is not taken in by the folksiness, the shamrock image, the professional charm of the Irish. She is refreshingly realistic about landscape, doesn't write about it in clichés as 'pretty' etc. She sees landscape as it properly is — in the context of people, geology, history, politics, culture.

Reversing the popular view, she hates B & Bs, viewing them as an enforced intimacy, a miniature 'colonization'!

She likes recounting short chance meetings, impressionistic personal encounters — then interpreting them, contextualising them. Every chance encounter is the beginning/middle/end of a story only glimpsed incompletely.

Identity as destination not origin (an anti-Eden myth). (NB This echoes the Existentialist position of existence before essence.)

National identity is based as much on forgetting as remembering.

Walking — or upright bipedalism — is the common point of origin for all human beings.

She describes tomb uprights with a slab on top as being in defiance of gravity or celebration of balance.

Every place is both exotic and local.

The Irish: 80% drunk and 20% depressed (cheeky!).

Efficiency is an unfriendly virtue, and no one I met in Ireland seemed afflicted with it.

The mobile person sees the landscape as static . . . but the stationary person sees that everything around is changing.

Ireland is not rocklike or static, but is always changing itself.

Birds are rooted in Irish culture: swans are incarnations of human souls. The symbology of birds: the soaring imagination, freedom, escape, spiritual energy, song.

The Irish exile (e.g. James Joyce): no longer belonging to where one comes from, yet unable to become part of where one has ended up.

This may be one of the under appreciated pleasures of travel: of being at last legitimately lost and confused.

I like inconclusiveness, like a conversation that will always need more to be said . . .

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Rare Fruits And Solitaires

For more than forty years I've been making notes and collecting quotes, picking gems from the word-hoard and plucking rare fruits from the bountiful cornucopia of literature. I'd love to share some of these with you; so, from now on, I'll be renewing on a weekly basis the quotations which appear just below my blog header. I hope you enjoy these ever-changing solitaires.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 2 March 2015

Low Pike And Scandale Beck

A visit to my mother-in-law in the Lake District last week gave me the chance to spend a day on the fells. Years ago I'd set out from Ambleside to walk the Fairfield Horseshoe via Heron Pike and Great Rigg, but had taken the wrong path off Fairfield's misty summit and ended up in Patterdale after scrambling over Cofa Pike and reaching the lofty viewpoint of St Sunday Crag (a spectacular route, I might add). This time my vague plan was to complete the second half of the horseshoe by taking in Low Pike, High Pike, Dove Crag and Hart Crag, then return to Ambleside on a clear track along the eastern flank of Scandale. I really wasn't sure how much of this ambitious route I'd manage to do, as it was a raw winter's day and there was snow on the tops. But it didn't matter: plans should always be flexible and able to adjust to circumstance; and anyhow, I was delighted simply to be out in the hills and the fresh air. And the air was certainly fresh, though I felt quite comfortable wearing two fleeces, hat, gloves and neck warmer, and a body-hugging base layer. The photo of Scandale Beck was taken from Low Sweden Bridge.      

My daypack felt good and snug on my back. I hadn't done anything like this for a few months, and I glowed in the familiar feelings you experience at the start of a walk: excitement, anticipation and a strong sense of release from the usual bonds of habit and routine which fetter so much of our life. These feelings can sometimes border on ecstasy. As I climbed, the views opened up; here I'm looking west towards the Langdale Pikes . . . 

. . . and to Loughrigg across the valley of the river Rothay.

Ambleside . . .

. . . and Lake Windermere . . .

. . . receded behind me as I hit the snow line.

Eating lunch on the summit cairn of Low Pike (508m, 1667 ft), I considered my options. Half the day had gone and I was only a quarter-way round my route. It was turning colder and the weather was deteriorating. The snow was getting deeper and the path increasingly harder to trace; in some places my boots were sinking in up to six inches of snow. Off the path the wet and grassy slopes — patchily blanketed with an unstable covering of snow — were treacherous. For me it would have been foolish, and physically and mentally challenging, to go on, although a well-equipped couple — the only hillwalkers I saw all day — did pass me, intending to complete the whole horseshoe. This is the view of High Pike from Low Pike . . .    

. . . and this is the bleak trough of Scandale. Scandale Beck has its source on Bakestones Moss high up at the valley head.

I turned back the way I'd come and quickly regained the easier slopes. Halfway down I branched off along a slabbed path which led to the valley bottom, where I found this beautiful packhorse bridge spanning the beck. A well-made track followed the tumbling stream through woodland and back to Ambleside.