A week of glorious spring weather has heightened springtime activity along the canal sides and nearby fields. It also coincides with a particularly busy period personally. My response and those of the birds and animals around could not be more different. We dip our toes into the worlds of the polar north and the work of Kosuke Koyama to explore some possible explanations for this.
25th March, Friday
“The fresh sun glances off the surface of the canal with a shimmering, silver warmth, that sets the night-time chill a-dance.
A clutch of moorhens squabble, fluster, scold, and court, in plain view, transforming the dark waters into a crystal maelstrom. It is so unlike their normally timorous behaviour.
A mallard pair doze in the sunshine on the bank.
I stand on the stern deck and beat the dust of winter from our rugs.
We have stepped into spring.”
In this episode I make a brief mention of the work of Knud Rasmussen. You can read his account of his work and explorations in:
Knud Rasmussen People of the Polar North: A record published in 1908 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.
I also mention Kathleen Jamie’s beautifully written, insightful, and extremely thought-provoking book Surfacing published in 2019 by Penguin Random House.
Kosuke Koyama’s Three Mile an Hour God has just been re-issued (2021) by SCM Press.
David Johns’ canals and boating vlog Cruising the Cut can be found here: Cruising the Cut
More information about Nighttime on Still Waters
You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon.
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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News from the Moorings:
This week has seen the most gorgeous spring weather, crisp starry nights, days of sunshine and warmth. Today, I actually considered thinking about bringing out one of the fans to keep the boat cooler! However, as soon as the sun drops so do the temperatures. We don't have a fire on tonight, but I have noticed a number of nearby boats do and will probably consider relighting the saloon stove tomorrow.
With the sunshine, the march of spring is becoming unmistakable. Colts foot, glowing like dandelions are springing up on the bank just above the water. I found some archangel this morning. I know archangel is a common local name for a number of different plants, but I have always learnt archangel to be the white dead nettle and I like the name. Despite, or possibly because it is so often overlooked and even, at times vilified, it is one of my most favourite of plants. Archangel is a suitably transcendent name for such a elegantly beautiful plant. There they are. Their graceful white flowers unfurling from its spearmint green stems and leaves delicately frosting a boggy culvert in the bank.
Blackthorn is still sparse close by, but walk a little further down the towpath and vaporous clouds of newly sprung petals uncurling from tight white globes. Along the roadsides, it has been out for some time, but here things take a little longer.
Just in time for blackthorn winter - as regular as dire prognostications from tabloids and newsfeeds warning of snow and sleet to come! One of Buchan's mythical cold spells, this one has a long history to it. Blackthorn winter is traditionally associated with the second week of April. Although there is another one in May, St Servatius Day, which is renowned, especially on the Continent, for bringing in sweeping cold and frosts.
Come what may, the isophenes of spring are running, washing in waves of colour and new life northwards at the speed of 3 mph. Spring has sprung and if, as it is around here, taking a little more time to come, not to worry, a tidal flow of warmth and light and colour is pooling and filling the last outliers of winter.
Steps out of Step:
We are slowly coming to the end of a very busy couple of weeks. Those times when everything seems to conspire together and demand your attention and response all at the same time. The weather has been beautiful this week, sunny warm t-shirt type days and crisp nights that shower brittle starlight upon the waters. It feels as if the land around me is waking up, still a little drowsy, after a long, long sleep. Everything that is except me! Two weeks of constantly chasing time, writing lists, catching things I have missed has served to create the feeling of being set me apart from the waking landscape. Reinforcing those old feelings of detachment, dislocation, as if I am the one in the marching band out of step. The late party-goer who turns up the black-tie event in fancy dress having misread the invitation.
This feeling is a bit strange as spring is a frenetic time of activity, nest building, bonding, pairing, suiters and rivals to be chosen or challenged, nesting locations identified, perhaps reclaimed, fought over; mating, egg laying, and nest sitting, cubs being born and hungry mouths being fed, leaves and blossoms budding and blooming. And so it goes on. The skies are filled with clamour, Starlings and rooks dousing the air with large twigs in the beaks, duck duels, buzzards and kites contested and chased.
But.... look around. It doesn't look or feel frenetic, driven, no matter how powerful the impulses to nest and raise young may be that course through their veins. I have heard reports that our local swan pair have made some forays into building a nest. The female, pen, is certainly ready to soon be laying eggs, but looking at them, there is none of the fidgety, restless, urgency that seems to shadow my every move. The impulse to nest and brood, must be there. It was strong enough to break their ties with Cyril and guard their territory from him or any other swans. But look at them, slowly drifting on the water, the slow alternate web-footed paddle that produces that serene, unhurried glide, curled up in the dreaming afternoon sun. Waddling up the grassy bank to the longer grasses. A cursory forage, a cursory preen, settling down to watch the world. Each task important, meeting a required outcome and filling a specific need, but there is no rush, just an easy unhurried flow. They must feel the need to build a nest, but there they lie, in the rich new growth of grass, dozing in the sunshine.
The ducks too, although sometimes suddenly overtaken by a flurry of activity and energy, A duck quack, she launches almost vertically into the air, a drake follows almost immediately, casting pearls of light tumbling back down into the water, then followed by the mate, bulleting into the sky with a crack of wing beats to attempt to head the rival off. Soon the successful pair glide down, a ruffle of wings and feathers, a quick wag of the tail, a quack from the female. Even before the waters return to their former stillness, they too have returned to the peace of the day. The sun is warm, the air is soft, nests can clearly wait.
Lambs graze beside a ewe who is fast asleep, or seems to be, the glint of light from the blackness of an open eye suggests she has seen me. But she does not move, not even to raise her head. And all the while, a rabbit slowly chewing, has not moved an inch.
I said earlier, I felt out of step - because that is exactly what I am. I am the only one in this sunny corner who seems to have a racing mind that can no longer hold all the lists I have made and will not shut off. That feels, even now, fidgety, restlessness, of needing to be active. The rise in heartbeat, the grip in the pit of the stomach, the shallowing of the breaths I take. And I am conscious, in the background, the hungry growl of speeding traffic suggests that I am not as alone in all of this as it might have first appeared. At what time and for what reason did we, as humans, chose to live by such a different set of rules? Seeing the swans, the ducks, the motionless form of the rabbit, each with their own itineraries, unhurriedly going about their lives, it strikes me that it is not surprising we do so badly in coping with the stress of business, it is, in every sense of the word, unnatural.
We - I - really are living out of step. The fast pace of our lives has turned us into aliens in our own home, we have outpaced our stories and our gods. The Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, talks about the 3 mile an hour God. The God who lives and works at 3 mph - the speed at which humans walk. We have left Koyama's God behind long ago, a God who, perhaps, just now walks with swans, the grazing rabbit, sitting still among the long grasses on the hill, lost in some unknown, to me, world. Where pottages are concerned, Esau seems to have had the better deal out of Jacob's stew after all.
I was reading the other day about the explorer and ethnologist Knud Rasmussen who, at the turn of the 20th century when talking with the shamans of the people of Greenland asked them if they had any conception of the divine.
Their reply was ambiguous, but the closest, perhaps, to the western idea of God, they said is Sila - the generative lifegiving force of all life and being of the Earth. Sila is both immanent and distant. Sila can be manifested in the violent storms and events of life, but, they also noted:
"The voice of Sila is gentle, like a woman, "a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot become afraid. What it says is 'be not afraid of the universe."'
A people who lived in one of the harshest and most inhospitable landscapes on Earth understand it not as a hostile enemy to be conquered in order to survive, but rather as a life-sustaining, nurturing mother.
In her book Surfacing, the writer and poet Kathleen Jamie, reflects on her time spent with the Quinhagak people of Alaska. She noted a phrase that was repeated time and time again. In the face of modern technologies which were becoming deeply embedded within their lifestyles, they would also say, "We gotta remember how to live."
Rasmussen's Innuits of Greenland, in their tents and ice homes beaten by polar winds and the long arctic nights remembered how to live.
The two swans, the ducks, the rabbit in springtime sunshine have never forgotten how to live or their home within the landscape, and they seem to being saying to me, "Careful. You're out of step. You're forgetting how to live and are losing your sense of home."
And the roads and the skies above me are filled with noise.
This disconnection with the realities of this Earth is not simply technological, physical - it's existential. The price for the pottage is way too high and not for the reasons Jacob (or later homilists) thought. In trading a bowl soup for a pocket full of birth rights that would lift him away from the bedrock of his existence, Jacob thought he had won. But now it looks not so clear.
The water disturbed by the landing of ducks will always return to its glassy stillness.
As the heat of the day begins to decrease, a calm begins to settle, like those turbulent waters left by a duck landing. I can almost feel a visceral need to shake off the stress, that shake I see in birds and animals over and over again. An action that is so much more than symbolic, a physical shaking off the excess adrenalin. The sun lowers and darkness begins to pool. A little further off, I can hear the voices of some boaters, sitting out in the cooling evening air. A clink of bottle, a laugh. Voices, human sounds, subdued to a rhythmic murmur. As indecipherable and yet, as intelligible, as the chuckling noises of the ducks on the other side. I don't need to hear the words to understand the deeper meaning of all this. And perhaps, perhaps, somewhere there is another sound, riding on the cool zephyrs of the evening air, scented with garden flowers, Koyama's three mile an hour God is walking, coming to talk with a misplaced Adam and his soul mate. Sila is whispering on the polar wind, "Hush, go to sleep. Do not be afraid of this universe."
If that is the case, and I do so hope it is, perhaps then the theatrical scenery, that is the stage and backdrop to the play of the driven rush that is our lives, will gradually begin to fill out; become richer, more solid, more sustaining, more enveloping and we will find that we are once more home.