Friday, 14 July 2017

Curlews, summer skies and walking in circles.

Summer skies over the Yorkshire Dales and my mind is set to rest mode. But that rest is not totally restful; there is a niggle ... a memory, a hint of childhood, something that unsettles slightly - a light brush stroke of discomfort; a gossamer breath of discombobulation and a 'Woah! Wait a moment!' moment of 'that's-not-right!' - we're about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in middle Britain and yet, I can hear the distinctive Peep! Peep! of oystercatchers and the piercing cry of curlew. Here - 

in the blue skies of the North Yorkshire dales and along the footpaths -

and above the endless miles of drystone walls are birds that should be at the coast. 

Oystercatchers, with their distinctive red pliers attached to their heads feed on - you've guessed it - oyster beds. All along the coastline of the British Isles, their distinctive cry is the call of summer. Drowned out somewhat by the banter of seagulls but sharp and high pitched enough to be powerful prickers of memory. I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland, by the sea and frequently on the sea - oystercatcher, heron, curlew, tern, eider and shell duck, with the occasional puffin out among the Western Isles, were the backdrop and soundscape of my childhood. It's great to hear them again. But unexpected; discombobulating. The Dales aren't exactly known for their oyster-beds or salt water lochs. 
A quick search on the internet reveals that, in the past fifty years, both species - the oystercatcher and the curlew - have increasingly been forced inland to breed, due to changing land use and habitat erosion along the coasts; overall numbers of both have declined and curlews are endangered; in the red zone, with oystercatchers marked as amber.

I have apparently over-stated the 'it's (another) oystercatcher/curlew' this holiday. I'm accused of flooding the air with CPD-like facts about the birds - which unhelpfully reminds me that I have my annual CPD-fest to write up before summer tips into Autumn (*extremely sad face*) - but I'm unapologetic. It is tragic to think that in another fifty years, Littlest could be walking in the dales with her children and reminisce that she once heard curlews here, before they became extinct. The fact that she currently says she will never walk on holiday with her children is quite beside the point. She will. Walk with them somewhere; I'm sure. Probably with satellite headsets that allow constant and instant communication with their friends while they walk, instead of the old-fashioned i-phones that struggle to find signal among these hills, but still remain stubbornly glued to the hand.

Enough of curlews and oystercatchers - Yay! cry Littlest and He-who-is-seldom-obeyed. Although I feel guilty dismissing them so lightly - the birds. The birds! Not Littlest; not HWISO - look at the RSPB website and the work they are doing to try to save these species ...

... I don't want to dream of empty skies.

Onward with our walking. What is it with walking? A slow perambulation through slowly changing countryside - slowly changing in more ways than one - there is a marked absence of wind farms, pylons, solar panels and pretty much anything giving away which century we're in. Slow wearing-down of the soles of walking boots and slowing the pursuit of cares and worries and preoccupations  and quieting their carousing in our minds. 

We walk in circles. 

And find another species entirely. But what is it? Stoat, weasel or ferret? We think ferret. Aren't the other two reddy-brown? The species in it's mouth is a mole. Clearly no longer spring cleaning his patch of river bank, or boating with a water rat, or picnicking with otter, or chasing toads in racing cars, or facing stern looks from a certain Mr Badger.

The builders of footpaths around here are inventive in their design - upended barrels of concrete work surprisingly well.

Walking in circles is soothing. It is the reflection of eternity and of peace. Running in circles, on the other hand, quickly spirals into chaos. So walk - beginning to beginning to beginning.
When you walk in a circle, there's no opportunity for boredom. The view ahead keeps changing and nothing is repeated. And you reach your destination which was also your start, so there is no need for complicated bus coordination or expensive rural taxis.

It turns out that others agree and Yorkshire is dotted with circular walking routes. This one started at Askrigg and stopped half way at Aysgarth Falls -

It climbed several gates

was long enough (10 miles) to encounter different weathers

and finish in bright sun. The lifting of the cloud reminded me of these words, by Longfellow

'Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.' 

and this

'When I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that peace and tranquility will return once more.' Anne Frank

And since that last picture is of Askrigg, where the James Herriot television series was filmed in the late 70s, it is, I think, appropriate to finish with a quote that applies as much to me, and to any other dreamy procrastinator, as it clearly did to him -

'That quotation about not having time to stand and stare has never applied to me. I seem to have spent a good part of my life - probably too much - in just standing and staring and I was at it again this morning.'

Sorry, if I've rambled on and on, but just for a moment - Peep! Peep! back to the beginning - do have a look at the RSPB website. It's a more worthy distraction than the leader of the free world spouting misogynistic drivel. Again.

Monday, 10 July 2017

On watching and not watching too many films. And lucky stars.

It could be argued that I watch too many films.

Arguably - and more accurately - it is not the watching of too many films that I am guilty of, but the  purchasing of films in abundance: more per month than I could ever watch, apparently - or so I have been told. But this is probably accurate, as I frequently have to explain myself, when asked have you seen such-and-such a film and find that I have no option but to reply yes, sort of. By 'sort of' I mean that I have seen bits of the said film. Sometimes, enough to get the gist of plot and theme and story, but more often a taste that is puzzling and unsatisfactory and teasing in a cruel you-can-see-me-if-you-can-catch-me sort of way. And I never have time to catch it. It is the lot of a mother - she who washes and cooks and clears and cleans and finds the odd socks (sometimes) and walks the dogs and feeds them and wrestles the ironing-mountain and answers the phone and waters the garden and bakes the bread and never sits still (except when busy writing) - to only ever see films in five minute chunks and to be left wondering about what happened next until the next film and the next what happened next. Until all the what happened nexts are forgotten and the answer to the question have I seen a particular film is sort of. Perhaps, 'no, not really' would be better?

I have, however, seen enough films and understand the human condition sufficiently to judge the accuracy of big, filmic moments.

One such moment happened to me recently.

It was one of those time-stopped/my-whole-life-flashed-before-my-eyes/scream-filled moments before ... what? Well anything, if we are back in cinema-land which involves an abrupt end - where the lights go out; where life considers the leap across the divide into death and the film plot pivots. In other words, anywhere there is a narrative full stop or a change of direction.

I'm not sure that the screen gets this potentially life-defining or indeed life-ending moment right:

- time does not stop.

- there is an unsettling quiet; unsettling like the sound of a nail being scraped across a black-board, or a high pitched, off-key scream - an eerie quiet that makes your hairs stand on end.

- life doesn't flash before your eyes - there isn't time for the contents of anyone's life to do that.

Instead, there's a moment which is almost a pause but is not a pause because things are still moving and importantly, you are aware that you are still thinking. It's that awareness and its sharp focus that identifies this moment. Suddenly, nothing matters except the moment you are in. Nothing at all. The overwhelming - and I mean totally overwhelming - feeling is one of inevitability. Of there being absolutely nothing you can do to prevent what is about to happen from happening. Like standing beneath the stars on a clear night and feeling infinitesimally small, this moment trivialises all your prior worries and concerns. It obliviates them. Momentarily. Or forever.
Life is suddenly out of your control (which begs the question, what degree of control had you over it anyway? Probably less than you thought). Your focus is on waiting. Waiting. Is it wrong to describe that focus as exhilarating? The inevitable next moment - the one that is, inexorably, about to happen - could change everything. For better or worse? And all you can do is wait. You've taken avoiding action. You've done your shouting. You've tensed every muscle in your body. Now, you watch. You wait.
Who flicks the switch - lights on or off? I don't believe anyone did, or indeed does; ever. I do believe in being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was unfortunate. I believe in chance. But not in any divine direction. I appreciate that when the lights remain on, as they did for all of us, there is luck and, perhaps fate and fortune too, involved. And mountains of after-the-moment reflection. And legions of What if? soldiers marching noisily through our heads. Stomp - What if? - STOMP - What IF? - S-T-O-M-P! WHAT IF?! Films - bits of films! - made me see what I feared might happen. But, without stunt coordinators, vehicle ramps, carefully coordinated explosions and special effects, it didn't. We walked away. Our What ifs? are mere nightmare dust, which breezy reality and time will blow away.

In that moment, we almost stopped; briefly. Of course, I wish that moment hadn't happened. I could have done without the week of discombobulation that followed. The disturbed sleep. The endless phone calls. The decisions of who to tell, who not to tell and the construct of very good reasons to not tell the people who weren't told. But ...
But like moments in a film which have narrative purpose, can I construct a positive outcome from this unfortunate moment, one which was entirely not my fault? What about all those unfinished lists? All those plans unexecuted? All that writing un-edited and stories un-submitted? All those plants un-planted and the greenhouse glass un-washed and borders un-weeded? All those people loved and not spoken to for hours, weeks, months? You know who you are; I need to reconnect with you. I think we sometimes get too caught up in the need to be perfect and then the distress in never achieving that perfection. I don't think I do, I know I do. Perhaps, we just need to be good enough. Good. Enough. If enough can be truly enough and make us happy then we don't need more. I need to keep telling myself that enough and only enough matters..

I'm going to stop now and - I know it's a cliche, so I'm sorry if it offends - thank my lucky stars.