February has been a month of storms both meteorological and figurative that have left many of us feeling battered and anxious. Such storms leave their marks upon the landscape and familiar terrains can become strange, alien, and threatening. The cataclysmic events of the last few days are difficult to process and have catapulted us into what feels lik a much darker and more fearful world. How do we respond to it all and how do we navigate our way through times of intense darkness and confusion? We look to the misplaced wigeon to help us find some direction.
“24th February, Thursday.
"An old crescent moon hangs in a sky
Swept clean by a week of winds.
On my car radio
News of a more brutal storm to the east.
With the rising sun."
In this episode I read the following poems (see episode chapters for time locations):
Tom Hennen ‘When Night Nears’ from his collection Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and new poems(2013) published by Copper Canyon Press.
Wendell Berry ‘To Know the Dark’ from his volume The Peace of Wild Things and Other Poems (2018), published by Penguin Books.
I also read an extract from his book The World-Ending Fire: The essential Wendell Berry (2018) also published by Penguin books.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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The little wigeon here has been a lot on my mind lately. He came, swept in on the roaring roll of an earlier storm at the beginning of February - although it feels much longer ago than that. A solitary stranger, blown in, cast adrift upon a landscape foreign to it. Alone, without the wheeling, piping flights of his own kind. A bird ship-wrecked on the shores of an alien world. How different the light must be here. Not the large never-ending expanses of sky of the eastern coastlands and tidal margins, laced with creaks, and the resilient, loneliness of wind-haunted mud-flats, sea-lavender, samphire, and the flame of gorse. I've not heard him whistle. Does he? Does he listen for the answering calls of his brothers, waiting in vain for the fluting notes far distant to tell him he is not alone?
A few episodes back ('The Solitary Stranger'), I talked about how the legend of the seven whistlers describes the search of six whistlers, wigeon, for their lost comrade. And that, once they are re-united the world will end. Themes of loss, loneliness, grief and restoration. How we need these stories today. Stories lived out in big and small ways.
I think so many of us feel some connection with the experience of our lost wigeon. Waking up, finding ourselves in a forbidding world - the old securities ripped away by storms both physical and figurative. The reassuring familiarities are lost. We too are finding that we've been cast adrift, ship-wrecked, in a world not of our choosing. A world that is alien, unknown, difficult to read. Our values, challenged, our compasses spinning. How beautifully, but devastatingly, appropriate that last week, one of my polestar oaks crashed to the ground under the onslaught of storm Eunice. One limb still survives, but it is torn, battered, ripped. For how many of us, this last week has seen our polestars topple? Leaving us under an unrecognisable heaven, jewelled with constellations, as yet, without name or shape? And the night feels darker, more unknown. Will the sun ever rise again (as for hundreds, already, it won't ever do again)?
We can smile and say, it'll be ok, but we know it's not ok. How do we enter and navigate our ways through such all-encompassing, thick, darkness? I post a picture on Twitter of damson buds just about to flower. It's a profound statement of hope, but I am aware that it also sits so uneasily alongside everything else that floods my timeline. A glib Panglossian sentimentality that avoids the uncomfortable truths we are facing. And yet, we need that hope. It is neither glib nor empty sentimentality.
Tom Hennen captures the disorientation that darkness can bring in his 'When Night Nears.'
My students are worried. Thursday morning, as the news was still breaking, it was really all the wanted to talk about. During the break, after the lecture, the topic of conversation returned. The strain was so apparent. I had recognised it in our Muslim students after terrorist bombings and the inevitable backlash they knew they were about to face; at the bus stops, in the supermarkets, walking down the streets. On Thursday the laughter in the room was just a fraction too loud, too fragile, too brittle, the shine in the eyes too bright. Markers of stress, fear, anxiety. I understood that need to talk, to articulate, to process. I also understand the danger of that need, the paralysis of talking in endless circles. And so we talked about another community, two thousand years earlier, suffering the oppression of living in an occupied nation. Destruction and a nation brutally dispersed. Groups trying to make sense of it. Groups trying to work out how to survive. Parallels were obvious. The use and re-framing of narratives; competing histories being appealed to for justification. It served to distract, to provide a sense of distance (that history can give) to understand how we were feeling, a consciousness and heightened awareness of the events unfolding as we were talking bubbling just below the surface.
They laughed about whether they would actually get to finish their degrees. It was a joke, but they have already experienced how quickly the world can change and certain plans dissolve. This time it feels different though. Covid, at least for the first phase, but us altogether. We could live by the cultural myth that we were all in it together - strangers could ask us 'if we were alright' and we knew that they meant it. That was until we learnt that however powerful myths are, they can be betrayed, rejected, swapped for darker ones. This time we approach a darkness entirely of our, human, making. The myth of violence and aggression, survival of the fittest, that we have idolised for 150 years, hard-baking it into every element of the culture of our modern world, is coming back to claim its own and we find little comfort in it. It is as if we have fallen into a world of darkness and night. And as we walk into the night and are overwhelmed by the depth of its darkness, our disorientation and sense of lostness. The polestar has gone. Crashing to earth in the great storm of our age that rages.
Little wigeon. Is this anything like you feel? Could you reach out to us, in your own way, to help fly us home, even though your own wings aren't strong enough to do it for you? And so every time I leave the boat, or look out of the window, I try to find him. In the darkest of our nights, here is one that knows how we feel. The lost seventh of the seven whistlers - listening in the dark for answering calls.
February has been a hard month for me, personally, in my professional capacity. I can't - and it wouldn't be right for me - to go into details. But I feel beleaguered, drained, angry, frustrated, exhausted, scared, sick. Part of it is that I and a colleague are being discredited and ridiculed nationally for taking the subjects we teach and the welfare of our students seriously. It's unfair and I know it is part of a much bigger agenda and I am not being targeted personally, we just became easy targets, but for the second time this month, it is difficult not to feel it personally. I am instructed not to discuss it and so can't give details. Again, I understand why and there is sense in it, but it also makes me feel so utterly defenceless. I refuse to call it a crisis. Crisis sounds over dramatic and sensationalist for something few will take note of. It is nothing compared to the nightmares of what people are facing in Ukraine, or those who have just sat in a doctor’s office to receive the worst of news, or the many, many thousands dealing with despair and tragedy. But I also know I am not being honest to myself, for in truth, for me, this is a crisis. The all too physical responses I am feeling in my body and in my mind tell me I am really only trying to deceive myself. I find myself in a world that I was not born into and I don't know how to navigate it or to survive in it. My night sky has no polestar. It is silent. There is no ring of the answering call of 6 whistlers looking for me.
Donna has been an absolute rock and a light that shines so strong and bright in the darkness of the crooked and perverse universe in which I find myself. And Penny's presence has been a continuous source of comfort. But, to be honest, I had decided that I couldn't do a podcast this week. I am having difficulty concentrating with what is happening globally and personally. What could I possibly say? How do I deal with a Twitter timeline that is either filled with images that haunt me through the night which are also interspersed with things which seem so horribly banal and trivial. In the face of all this, how can I go out and talk about the promise of budding flowers and spring lambs when we face such awfulness? At best a distraction, a sentimental sticking plaster on a gaping wound, at worst an attempt at pseudo-wisdom masquerading as self-help therapy.
But that is also not right. It is true, I have never wanted to try to present nighttime on Still Waters as some kind of oracle dispensing wisdom and therapy. I am no expert, whether that be on boating, canal-life, natural history, or life in general. I have no answers and, at times like this, I am at a loss as to what to say that is not some banal truism or cod-wisdom that you can get from an internet meme. However, the whole point of these times is to share with you this small circle of light and to acknowledge the darkness of our nights in all their sometimes appalling and frightening beauty. And that, out there, outside my window, are communities we live among. Non-human communities - or to borrow from Robin Wall Kimmerer and the Potowatomi tradition - more than human communities. They remind us of the much larger worlds/realities into which we are thrown.
Our polestars may have toppled, but new ones will begin to emerge. That is their nature and it is our nature to find them and invest in them something of ourselves. Random patterns forming constellations, constellations forming stories, stories forming wisdom for us to live by.
And the wigeon. Of course, the wigeon. The wigeon foraging the new growth grasses in late winter sunshine, with a small group of Mallard - preening his feathers, stretching a wing and leg. I read that this is often a sign of relaxation and contentment in birds (particularly chickens). This morning, the air was cut with frost, but the sun was warm and he dozed in the middle of the water, the current slowly turning him in circles, head tucked back. I threw him some duck food, although we'd known for a long-time he's not interested in it. A couple of ducks swam quickly passed, as a little black eye flashed open. But he continued to just float, bobbing on the water. The sun as thick as syrup. Floating in a world of his own. For a while, everything else faded away. For he may be alone, he may have found himself in a world to which he did not belong, but there, in the sunshine, there on the grassy banks of the canal-side, there in those stolen moments, he is in a world of his own, AND WHAT A WORLD that world is. And if, just if... the voices of the other six whistlers are imminent - just beyond the aural horizon, they can wait, just for these snatched moments. There is no hurry.
We might well be anxious and scared. The darkness of night is frightening, but it is also part of our day. It is just as much our environment as the daytime - we just seem to fear it more and try to control it, repress it. We have succeeded so well that many people in cities and suburbia will live their lives without ever seeing the milky way in the night sky. Night and darkness have become things to avoid, to shy away from. Darkness is too much of a mirror for us to bear. Like silence, it robs us of the veneer of our progress and knowledge. It heightens an awareness of our limitations - walk in a wood in pitch dark, and you quickly learn to walk slowly, humbly, feeling your way, walking like an infant - each step a conscious and tentative act. Darker nights teach us important lessons to learn.
Wendell Berry so eloquently explains…
It is precisely this theme that is the message of his short poem 'To Know the dark".
May you find new polestars, learn to read new mythologies of night-time constellations to guide your path and find times of late winter sun-warmth and reflected light.