The Pull Of The River: Escape Routes – an extract

by Matt Gaw

We head out straight, the canoe’s nose pointing towards the river’s first bend. The wind, the first taste of a storm that is forecast to hit tomorrow, funnels down the seaward stretch of the Alde and forces lumps of water under the Pipe. They hit hard, like speed bumps.

The Alde is comparatively short, with less than 20 miles separating its source in Laxfield (close to where Suffolk’s Blyth also bubbles into life) and its mouth near Orford, where it becomes known as the Ore. Yet in some ways it feels like the biggest river we have explored so far. As we paddle into the winter sun, the whole horizon shimmers. The water, the acres of mud, the beaches and soggy spits all gleam, all ripple with light. It’s hard to tell where the river stops and the land begins.

With the tide still not completely with us we decide to take a break and allow the water to gather. We get the Pipe up to what James calls ‘ramming speed’ and beach ourselves on a shingle spit that spears out into the water. But these are no stones. It is a mass of shellfish and crab, a great, grey beach of shells, clam and carapace; a huge graveyard of mussels, spattered with barnacles and mud. It’s impossible to stand in any one place for long without sinking down to the ankles, so we drink our tea on the move, taking crunching steps round tiny blue lagoons of trapped water. James, stomping theatrically over a pile of broken shell, says it reminds him of a grisly scene from Terminator 2 in which robotic feet smash through the burnt remains of human skulls.

‘It’s like,’ he says, waving a disembodied crab claw at me, ‘we’re at the end of the world.’ I know what he means; there is a sense of loneliness here, that we’ve escaped to a place where both land and time are running out.

We collect shells to avoid thinking about the bone-chilling cold, arranging them on the nose of the Pipe as the water begins to rise around us, the shallow pools widening into each other. A gull, disturbed by our presence, reluctantly throws itself into the wind. The shell spit is now less solid than ever, a wavering hazy line between land and water. Within minutes we can actually see the tide. While the river flows seaward, the current piles against it and over it, leaving the surface of the water taut, occasionally breaking into an angry swirl, or rising into sharp spikes like the black dorsal fins of hundreds of fish jostling to get upstream. It is also a clear sign for us to get going. I clamber back in and James pushes off, jumping onto the Pipe as she glides away from the mussel island and back into the river.

There are plenty of boats here, but no one to sail them. We try to guess the names painted on their sides before we reach their mooring buoys, disappointed that close up ‘Witches Spank’ becomes ‘Vital Spark’, the ‘Onion’ the slightly more cosmic ‘Orion’. I think of my five-year-old daughter’s announcement a couple of months ago while taking a river taxi in Beccles: ‘If I had a boat I’d call it the Idi-yacht.’

As the boats thin out, the number of birds increases and we find ourselves relying on them to navigate the narrow channels through the mud: the throngs of feeding waders mark the waterline, galloping away in startled herds when the canoe gets too close.

Even with the tide’s help it takes more than an hour to reach Iken, but we couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sky is a cold blue, fading to milk at the edges; clear apart from a single vapour trail, stretched and pulled by the wind into a ragged backbone of fluffy vertebrae. There are clouds of a different sort too. Dunlin. Only visible when the sun hits their white chests and the underside of their whirring wings, they pulse and rush above the water. Their feathers glint like the flashing scales of silver fish with each dip and turn. We stop paddling to watch, but their murmuration finishes as quickly as it began, the birds dropping like beautiful pebbles onto a curve of mud near the right bank, rooting their bills in the mud.

Alde Mudflats stretch for almost three miles around the church that overlooks the estuary, emerging with each low tide. An Atlantis of nutritious, invertebrate-filled mud. Leased from the Crown Estate by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, it is a nature reserve, a refuge for a huge number of birds. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place. Curlew stilt-walk across the mud, their bills a needle-thin shoehorn of bone-hard keratin, prodding and searching. Others take off as we near, like feathered Concordes with skinny nose cones lowered. Further away there are avocet, oystercatchers, redshank and many others I cannot name. I feel a slight sense of frustration at not knowing them, at not being able to separate and identify the mass of whimpering, mournful cries that wobble out over the estuary.

But in some ways it doesn’t matter. Part of what I find amazing about experiencing nature are those moments of wild chaos, the pure clamour of life when nature and self are suddenly wrapped up together in one song. The boundlessness of the natural world doesn’t just surround me or impress me; it assimilates me, claims me as its own. The experience is often fleeting, but it is undeniably precious. Soul-nourishingly so. What’s more, I can feel it here on this estuary. For haunting seconds, in the thrum of beating wings, the creeping water and the power of the rushing tide, I become gloriously, precariously, part of it.

The tide is hurrying ahead of us now. We’re on a Nantucket sleigh ride powered by the great brown flukes of water rushing inland. The paddling is so easy that we shoot past the point where we planned to turn round, gliding on towards the reedlined banks that lead to Snape Maltings, which appears like a great ship ghosting above the water.

Matt Gaw is a writer, journalist and naturalist who lives in Bury St Edmunds. His work has been published in the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. He works with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, edits Suffolk Wildlife and writes a monthly country diary for the Suffolk Magazine. The Pull of the River is his first book. See also www.MattGaw.com.

around the circumference of exactly here in 7000 miles & 6 species

by Dave Borthwick

 

1. & 2. —Always Now

the Jackdaws talk from dark to dark, voices chimpish in the low
conversations of pre-dawn: intimate and confiding
before the yelling at the sun & in the sun, time of the whirling wings & bickering
they will repeat to yell at the sun going & in the going sun,
their daily migrations around trees & cattlesheds,
the burn & the river that cut across
Crown land, & Cooper’s land, the Temple Woods
& the quarry flitted by Peregrines

3. & 4. — September to April

there are Whooper swans in the fields along the village road
& they bugle Iceland’s summersound as the light comes
& as it goes
& startle drivers with low glidings to land
on Mackenzie’s land
over which the pink-footed geese travel longwinter habit: out
from the coast first thing & inland,
a thousand on Doyle’s land, then Dryfe’s land, & Tulloch’s land
as the months wear on, whiffling to land, buzzing to rise: in
towards the sea again come night, later each night,
the earth tilting the season slowly back to light
to the sound of Greenland’s summer

5. & 6. — April to August

we make there early to avoid tourists
just after their return
& find one perched on the tree struck by lightning
years ago & it wheeps, reedy & high,
sound of a Senegalese river with sun recasting the water
& the Osprey bears off downriver then,
away from land held in trust for the nation
because of a warlord’s ruin
sometime before the extinction,
before the return with a Flounder from the coast

 

Dave Borthwick is a tramper of fields and stander in the rain, who also runs the MLitt Environment, Culture and Communication at the University of Glasgow’s satellite campus in Dumfries

White Bears

by Eloise Shepherd

You see your first polar bear thousands of miles away from any actual bears. Going north, Oslo to Tromsø, they spring out at you in ever-increasing densities on jumpers, postcard stands and advertising hoardings. I noticed all of these because the bears are why I was here.

I get on a series of three planes – London – Oslo, Oslo – Tromsø, Tromsø – Longyearbyen. I expect the planes to get smaller but they don’t. It is April; every plane north taking me further into lingering winter.

In the departure lounge for the flight to Longyearbyen there is a vividly realized picture instructing passengers to ‘Take Polar Bear DANGER seriously’. In it, the illustrated bears worry over something that looks suspiciously like a tourist’s remains. Several people take toothy, grinning selfies with it.

Longyearbyen sits at 78.2° north. With 2,144 permanent residents, it is the northernmost settlement in the world with a population reaching four figures. It is, for Europeans, the most accessible part of the high Arctic, and tourism is growing. 39% of the jobs now done on Svalbard are now in the tourism and culture industry, which is worth around NOK 630m (just short of £58m). Yearly nights in hotels on the islands have gone up from around 40,000 in 1996 to 130,000 in 2015 .

For my sins, I am one of these tourists. Other than the ever-present hope of bears, key thrills include the genuine possibility of being, at any moment, the northernmost person, say, hopping, or listening to Nick Cave. I am an armchair Arctic enthusiast. You probably cannot name a book on Svalbard or on polar bears that I haven’t devoured, but this was my first actual trip north of the Arctic Circle. It required the purchasing of thermals, serious trousers, and the dusting off of a ski jacket I hadn’t used in a number of years.

Even in April, even being one of the fastest warming places on the planet temperatures can still drop into the -20°Cs. Like many of the tourists visiting Svalbard, I am, to put it mildly, not used to these kinds of temperatures. Expecting an onslaught of cold I removed my ski jacket from my check baggage and huddled its bulk under the chair in front of me.

In other words, like many Svalbard tourists, I have no knowledge of the Arctic climate, no experience of the challenges, and no ability whatsoever to be independent in this environment. However this is OK. Like thousands of others, I can be shepherded from place to place, to the point even of being driven up a mountain in a belt wagon.

There is a level on which I know this is problematic.

The first view of Svalbard is sublime. I mean that both in the visceral and intellectual sense of the word. I hadn’t even seen mountains like this. Let alone the ice floes, the glaciers. After years of pouring over pictures and watching documentaries the reality of the place, of descending down the Isfjorden, makes me actually cry. I was surprised and embarrassed by this level of emotion. Glad to be sat alone, by the window, with no one next to me.

For centuries, now our lives are safe, we have been asking why it is that wild places inspire these feelings in us, why we are drawn to these inhospitable places. Why they obsess us.

It is the same with the bears. There are, indisputably, more images of polar bears just in advertising than there are polar bears in the world. How can I be obsessed with polar bears when I have never seen one in the wild? How can they occupy such a huge element of my imaginative space? There are really two distinct things. The bears themselves, and what they have come to mean and represent to us.

Scientists estimate that the total circumpolar population of polar bears is around 25,000. These are divided into several subpopulations, although there is considerable traffic between these groups. The Barents Sea population, including Svalbard, is commonly cited as consisting of around 3,000 bears, although this figure is from a 2004 helicopter survey, and there will undoubtedly have been change since then. A 2015 tally from the Norwegian polar institute put the amount of bears on the islands themselves at 975 (this is broadly in keeping with a 3,000 figure for the whole subpopulation).

Before 1973, the Svalbard bears were hunted extensively. Now, thankfully (although potentially futilely, given climate change) they are strictly protected in all parts of the islands . Since these new laws came in, an average of two bears per year have been killed through (alleged) self-defence, or because the animal was sick or injured.

There are years that as many as nine bears have been killed (1987). In the same period in Svalbard, there have been only five fatal bear attacks. The details of these (unlike the yearly destruction of the bears in self-defence) are easy to find.

We are fascinated by these accounts. Polar bears are the largest land carnivore, they have notoriously been known to stalk humans as if hunting (unlike most other bears, which generally attack only if threatened). Male polar bears reach weights of between 300-700kgs, with females considerably smaller (150-300kgs unless pregnant). This is a huge powerful animal. Without guns, humans are simply not a match for the bears. So it is the law on Svalbard that outside of the main settlements you must carry a gun or be with someone who is carrying a gun.

As we landed the air steward donned a woolen scarf to open the plane door. We descended straight to the tarmac and yes it was cold, but not like I imagined. I pulled on my ski jacket and joined the rest of the passengers in taking picture after picture.

Around the period of solar eclipse in March 2015, a group of tourists around 30km outside of Longyearbyen were attacked by a bear while they slept. One member of the group awoke to find it ‘standing over him’ in his tent and received minor injuries. Other members of the group shot the bear with revolvers, which scared it away and injured it, but didn’t immediately kill it. It was later shot by local hunters. The tourist in question, when interviewed in hospital, commented that he hoped to be out in time for the eclipse, which took place the following day. After a four-month investigation, the leader of the group was fined 10,000 NOK (nearly £800) as “They had not put in place the necessary safeguards. There was only one tripwire that was set too high and the bear went under it. Nor did they have a polar bear watch at the time, ”. A trivial amount, for the bear’s life.

It is easy to be angry about this. Less easy to conceptualise or to acknowledge emotionally is the devastating impact of climate change on the bears. It would be criminal not to also acknowledge my own role in that (for instance in having taken a total of six flights to get to and come back from Svalbard).

The bears need sea ice. The female bears, in majority, also need access to land to den and produce cubs . So, to sustain the current populations the ice not only needs to remain, but it needs to be in contact with denning areas. It is also not just any ice that the bears rely on. Prime hunting ground is seasonal sea ice with many ‘leads’ or areas that seals use to breathe. The polar bear is classified as a marine mammal, but despite considerable swimming abilities, it is not aquatic and therefore reliant on the sea ice to access the seals. Over the past 25 years, the summer sea ice melt period has lengthened, and summer sea ice cover has declined by over half a million square miles. There is less ice, for less time.

At the moment this is being most keenly felt in the southern reaches of the bears’ range (e.g. the Western Hudson bay population, which declined by 22% between 1987 and 2004). However, if there were to be an ice-free Arctic by or around 2040, as some predict, extinction or near extinction of the bears would be, surely, likely to follow. Ian Stirling, the much-lauded polar bear biologist, predicts extinction for most of the subpopulations, without intervention, in 30-40 years, primarily because of climate change.

I dream about polar bears, often. I cannot quite define what they represent to me. My love of them started, I think, with Iorek Byrnison, the formidable bear who befriends Lyra in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I read these books as a child. Since then, I don’t think I have ever been without them imaginatively. I was in Svalbard in the first place to research a book that starts and ends here, with the bears.

Although I kept my eyes peeled I didn’t see one. Well. There was the stuffed bear overlooking the baggage belt in the airport. The bear in the museum, lifesize and still. The soft toy at my hotel that sat while I and the other tourists ate food flown in from the mainland. The endless, endless pictures and drawings on shopping bags, on postcards, on vehicles. The image alone is economic lifeblood. In Svalbard, as it is in Churchill.

I took a daylong boat trip along the Isfjorden. The mercury that day plummeted to -20°C. Even inside gloves my fingers were painful. I tried to stay out on deck as long as possible, scouring the shore for any sign of a bear. Inside the cabin of the boat, after some hours, there was a sick feeling. Passengers leaned on each other and slept. The smell of the lunch cooked for us (minke whale, salmon, beef) was indelible and queasy.

I put up with the cold as long as I could. Making small trips into the cabin to rub feeling back into fingers and toes. Outside things were clear. The sea was black and not as calm as I expected for essentially a fjord. The birds were coming back. Little Auks. Northern Fulmars. Kittiwakes, who nest also near my parents’ home by the Tyne. They skimmed the surface of the cold black water, soon to burst into spring life.

It was the day before the midnight sun returned, the next four months here would be without night. But no bears. I watched a bearded seal, its whiskers like split ribbons, look at us pass, safe on the sea ice. 100,000 potential calories for any bear.

My being there was selfish. I am not scientist. I wanted to see a bear, I wanted to see their home. Yes I felt dwarfed by the scale of the place – the cold, the mountains, the warming sea. But what value does that have, other than for me. Again, in reverence I am putting my need for sublimity ahead of the aching need to reduce emissions. This is what we do, humans, we put ourselves first and the impact now is terrifying, it pushes me into despair. In his excellent book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies, scientist and nature writer Douglas Chadwick states that humans and their livestock in 1900 made up 2% of the total land mammal biomass. Now, in 2017, we (and our livestock) make up 90%. The speed and scale of this is terrifying.

In His Dark Materials, Svalbard is the kingdom of the bears. There is a profound truth in this. Polar bears may not talk, wear armour, or make friends with small but adventurous children. But it is their world. Or it was.

At the end of my week in Svalbard my eyes ached from pressing them again and again against binoculars, scanning a white horizon. The bears stayed away and so, stay in my head.

 

Eloise Shepherd writes fiction, poetry and nature non fiction. She is the co-founder of www.liminalresidency.co.uk, an alternative writer’s retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces. You can read her work in New Writing 13 and the Fiction Desk’s New Ghost Stories anthology. She spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about bears for someone who lives in Crystal Palace and maintains a surprisingly successful sideline in boxing.

Americana

by Anna Kisby

raton, es-see-ban, culu, suk-suk
Edge of the freeway, weaving like a drunk man, someone is lost
on two legs stumbling into paths of cars, veering away, in again —

wee-chah, icat, mapache, a-rough-cun
The one who took everything in his hands is empty-handed, catching
only at onrush of air, gasoline vapour

suk-suk, icat, raton, wee-chah
Truck-horn howls return to his mind coyotes
of childhood, great horned owls, taste of corn in its milk-state

way-atcha, tou-aru, ny-mas, arath-kone
His bandit’s mask has slipped, he makes no mischief anymore,
there are no locks to pick here

__________________________*

The night before, in fir forest above road-verge
he heard earthworms pushing their way to surface,
put him in mind of arriving at sea-mouth after freezing river
way-atcha, tou-aru, icat, ahrah-koon-em

He has kept to his den all winter, he is over the wonder
of snow, will leave no more tracks for you to follow
on highway, sidewalk, forest path. His glorious tail
arath-kone, mapache, culu, suk-suk

is the trophy you seek or the curse — now swerve
for him, save your tears, grip the wheel and speed on
until he’s a speck in your wing mirror, in the stories you’ll tell
ahrah-koon-em, arath-kone, a-rough-cun, raccoon

 

‘Americana’ was previously published in ‘Nature & Sentience’ (Corbel Stone Press, 2017).

Anna Kisby is a poet living in rural Devon (UK). She is widely published in magazines and anthologies, won the BBC Proms Poetry competition 2016 and was commended in the Faber New Poets Scheme 2015-16. Her debut poetry pamphlet All the Naked Daughters is published by Against the Grain Press (2017).

Natalie Sirett – Artist

“The environmental impact of human activity on birdlife suggests that, as a species, we care little for avian survival. Yet our culture and language are crowded with bird symbols that reveal a deep and passionate connection to our ‘feathered friends’. Birds symbolise love, hope, renewal; our hearts soar and flutter, we rise phoenix-like from ashes, while it is the dove who finds the first symbol of peace. The bird in flight symbolises freedom, while a trapped or injured bird represents imprisonment. My Flight Boxed Series is inspired by this tension between constraint and flight. These artworks were made on boxes because they can be locked and unlocked, opened and closed, like wings. The drawings, or ‘nets’ were made as practical diagrams, rather like the nets of 3D shapes we make in school. They were essential to help me wrap the birds around the boxes interior and exterior surfaces.”

Natalie Sirett was born in Heswall, Cheshire and currently lives and works in London. She received a BA in Fine Art from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and studied painting and printmaking at the Royal Academy Schools, London. Her work explores symbols and stories embedded in our culture. “I am in some ways a contemporary symbolist or icon painter. I want to make art where object and meaning, substance and symbol unite.”

Boxed Crane, oil on wood 100 x 20 x 25 cm, 2015/6
Boxed Pelican, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Boxed Swallow, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Crane’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Pelican’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Swallow’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015

Theatre Road at Dusk

by James Walton

 

there is a vacancy in my house
that cannot be occupied

an emptiness
lost to deer by fading

headlights are her weakness

an urge to perform
a hand painting given rainbow air

the schooled leap of cosine dance
one precise bound only

across dizzy evening margins

where the vacancy in my house
cannot give audience to an elegance

four becomes one momentarily
in a Fonteyn of grace

she vanishes off stage

as night sways
like a bead curtain

after someone has stepped through

 

James Walton was a librarian, a farm labourer, a cattle breeder, and mostly a public sector union official. He is published in many anthologies, journals, and newspapers. He lives in an isolated farming community in the Strzelecki Mountains is South Gippsland, Australia. He has been short listed twice for the ACU National Literature Prize, and was commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition.

The Chetwode Grey

by Tom Jeffreys

Sitting on a low stone wall outside the parish church of Chetwode, about four miles south-west of Buckingham, I wonder how close I have just come to death. The experience – and an unrelated pain that follows it – will force me to think in depth for the first time about the importance of the human body. Might our bodily vulnerability provide a clue to our relationship with other animals – both our similarities and our differences? Could the body change the way we think about thought itself? Perhaps I’m over-magnifying the afternoon’s incident in my mind. But that horse was very big, and very close.

I’ve always been terrified of horses. Or rather, my fear has become so ingrained that I’ve forgotten its origins. In fact, now I think about it, it wasn’t always this way. I have a hazy childhood memory of happy horse-riding through sunny rural anywhere. We even spent a hot afternoon clearing fields of yellow-flowering ragwort: if dried and mixed in with hay it is highly poisonous to horses. Alive, its flowers glow a golden yellow and drive the bees doolally. That evening, we sat around a campfire and I cut my finger on a ring pull. I have no idea where or when this memory comes from – perhaps it’s not even mine.

Since the midnight apparition on the first night, horses have been a frequent sight along this journey. On the fourth day, I passed quickly through a field of them standing in the rain. They gathered after me at the stile as if imploring me to stay and entertain them. I walked on, looking back with regret at my own fear. My wife, Crystal, seems able simply to approach strange horses – she holds out her hand, and pats their neck, and soon they are the best of friends.

Perhaps they can sense her affection for them. Perhaps they can smell my fear. On this fifth morning, I passed through another field – this time of smartly liveried ponies, each in its own neat blue jacket. They looked at me with the habitual disdain of the over-pampered, softened only by a momentary flicker of curiosity. They soon turned back to their grass.

The history of the horse in Britain is a long and fascinating one. The oldest known horse remains were found in Pakefield, a suburb of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and date from 700,000 BC. To put that in context, modern humans have only occupied Britain for some 40,000 years. Horses have been in this country nearly eight times longer than us. From objects of the hunt, horses gradually came to be employed as tools of the hunt. Domestication had begun here by 2500 BC, and the horse became the fundamental component of military strategy up until the decline of feudalism and the emergence of the longbow in the fourteenth century. From symbols of status to modes of transport: through the nineteenth century, horses gradually replaced oxen as the animals of the plough.

Although the subsequent industrialisation of agriculture removed many animals from the land, in certain areas horses were still widely used well into the twentieth century. Just to the east of where I’m walking today lies the village of Hardwick (a common Anglo-Saxon place name meaning ‘livestock farm’). In 1966, Hardwick was immortalised as Byfield in Richard Hillyer’s beautiful memoir Country Boy.

In the book, Hillyer (whose real name was Charles Stranks) tells of his upbringing in the tiny village. Raised in a world of back-breaking agricultural labour, Hillyer finds himself cut off emotionally and intellectually from the community by his intelligence and by his love of reading. His is a largely private, internal world, characterised by moments of magic in books and nature.

Throughout Country Boy animals are a recurring source of fascination. The villagers, for example, are repeatedly compared to animals. ‘My father had the patient courage of an animal,’ writes Hillyer, in what seems intended as a compliment but nonetheless not an unequivocal one. Hillyer is not alone in describing workers in this way. Several times in Capital, Karl Marx does the same. ‘The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse,’ he writes. As if in response to Marx, Richard Jefferies wrote in his 1885 essay ‘One of the New Voters’: ‘a man is not a horse’ and then again a few lines later, ‘Roger the reaper is not a horse’.

In Country Boy, the patterns of rural life that surround the young narrator are both comforting and deadening. It is a world marked by ‘the heavy stupidity, the animal indifference’ of his fellow humans, who exist only to work in the fields. In many ways, the animals are more important than the men, for whom they are supposed to be tools. Hillyer notes, for example, that the working day is ‘limited only by what the horses could stand, the men didn’t matter’. It’s hardly surprising that, in such circumstances, man and animal occasionally come into conflict.

In one especially heart-rending scene, Spicer, the horse-keeper – described as ‘a surly beast at the best of times’ – resorts to repeated violence against the horses at the plough. He ‘dashes at the horse, curses it, beats it, kicks it, his heavy boot coming up with savage impact on the smooth, tight skin of the horse’s belly’. The whole episode comes about due to the narrator’s own nervousness with such animals – his fear and his lack of that apparently innate ability to understand and guide them. This comes in stark contrast to the dexterity of his brother John, who seems to have a natural way with horses in particular. Hillyer’s guilt at his own incompetence is palpable: ‘I could have saved [them] from such treatment if only I had known how to handle them.’ When I read of John, I can’t help thinking of Crystal. It is Hillyer with whom I identify.

And now I’m climbing over a stile, just off the road through Chetwode. I brush aside some branches and enter a large open field. Three adult horses look up at me, bored, and return to their grazing. A fourth sidles over to say hello. Hello, I say in return. As she comes closer I stop and hold out my hand, as I’ve seen Crystal do so many times. She comes closer.

The last time I had been this close to a horse it had not ended well either. On our honeymoon, Crystal had somehow persuaded me to accompany her riding. It was an idyllic afternoon as we rode along the beach and through the sea. I say ‘rode’, but I simply sat atop the horse as a friendly local ex-jockey walked along beside with a rope to keep the horse in check. In the home straight, however, the horse decided that he had had enough of this obedient slow progress. Perhaps it was being overtaken on both sides by a pair of cantering males; perhaps it was the proximity of home and dinner – but inside his horsey head a switch flicked discernibly. He threw his head from side to side and the man, who had been in total control up until now, suddenly lost his grip on the rope. In that moment I was alone atop this huge dark beast.

As it crested a small mound of sand it reared upwards, throwing its head back. I managed to cling on – but not for long. On the downwards slope it bucked again and I half-slid, half-fell off the side of my high horse. Betraying my inexperience in such matters I thrust out a hand to cushion my landing. This is how wrists are broken: fortunately, the sand was soft and forgiving. Not so the horse. As I landed, I looked up. Above me and towards me, coming hard, the black, kicking hooves right at my head. They say that in such moments your life flashes before you. All that flashed before me was the hot fear of imminent pain. I shut my eyes and ducked, I think, or rolled. Or fell. I felt nothing. I braced for the sudden onrush of agony – pain always waits one tricky moment before launching its full-frontal assault.

Still nothing. I got to my feet, swayed a little, and breathed. The man ran towards me – relief and terror writ together across his wide brown eyes. As the horse disappeared into the distance, I laughed a nervous little laugh.

This memory is, if not quite at the forefront of my mind, then certainly somewhere lurking around, as I continue to proffer my palm to the Chetwode grey. She approaches and snuffles at my empty hand. Slowly, with my other hand I reach up to stroke her face. She breathes hot and loud upon my hand. I wander what she is thinking, but her eyes are inscrutable. It is, I think, the same confrontation with ignorance in the face of the other that Helen Macdonald experiences when looking into the eyes of her goshawk. ‘What is she thinking?’ she asks at one point. ‘What is she seeing?’

The process that Macdonald goes through over the course of H is for Hawk not only involves learning about the mind and life of the animal other, but also about the limits of that learning. There is, ultimately, only so much we can know. ‘I cannot know what she is thinking,’ Macdonald admits in prose of simple brilliance towards the end of the book, ‘but she is very alive.’ It is the same conclusion drawn by Mark Rowlands about his wolf companion in The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Jacques Derrida when his cat sees him naked in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, and by countless others. However deeply science can probe into the brain of an animal, however accurate our simulations of the eyesight of cats or bees or hawks, ultimately there are some things we cannot ever know.

I look up into the big, dark eyes of the grey face in front of me. I have no idea what it might be thinking, or even if ‘thought’ is the appropriate word. I smile nervously and decide not to push my luck. I say goodbye, withdraw my hand, and turn away to walk slowly onwards. Is this a mistake? If so, I won’t know it yet. The grey follows me close behind – just as I’ve seen a little pony do to a lone lost walker in the Oxfordshire countryside when I was on holiday with my father a year or so before. That pony nipped on to the girl’s rucksack and followed her up the hill. She looked terrified, but we smiled and the pony skipped off playfully.

This time I laugh too. But as I walk on, the grey’s pacing becomes increasingly erratic. Suddenly she is up alongside me. As I turn, she retreats away. Then back towards me, then once more away – this time rearing up and kicking its rear legs out straight towards me.

‘Holy shit!’

Panic floods upwards. I try to keep calm, keep walking slowly onwards. No sudden moves. That’s the correct response, right? Again it approaches fast, right up close to me, darts back and kicks. I duck away. How the fuck am I going to get away from this horse? Up ahead the field simply stretches on. No stile or fence or wall. Nothing to separate me from danger. I make my calculations: there’s no choice but to turn back.

I wheel around, holding out my stick to try to keep the horse at a distance. (Finally, it seems to have come in useful.) I make my way as quickly as I can back the way I’ve come – walking, trying not to appear panicked. I’m not entirely sure who I’m trying to fool. I remember once being followed in similar intimidatory fashion by a herd of cattle when out walking with language artist Camilla Nelson near her home in Somerset. As I pretended not to be terrified she told me that if you simply ignore them then they won’t do you any harm. What time is it, Mr Wolf? The cow as wolf in reverse. Unlike the cattle, however, I don’t think this horse is fooled. Certainly its strafing manoeuvres continue – closer and closer, each time I feel the air rush past my face as the hoofs kick through the air. I hasten towards the bushes and finally – after moments that feel like years, that stretch out interminably as I look back now – finally into the branchy protection of the trees at the edge of the field. I scale the stone stile to the safety of the road beyond. My heart is pummelling against my chest.

It’s time to take the long way round, again.

 

This is an edited extract from ‘Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot’ (Influx Press, 2017).

Tom Jeffreys is a writer, editor and occasional curator with a particular interest in art that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. He writes regularly for Apollo, Frieze, and Monocle, and has also been published in numerous other newspapers, magazines and websites. Signal Failure is his first book.

Dogspel

by Ann Cefola

In the beginning was the Bone
and the Bone was good and strong, it grew
outward in layers, flushed inside by beating blood,
held by organs, muscle and sinew, until with a yelp
and flash of water emerged with other bones, blind
and mouthing toward a teat, squirming bones,
minute paws and the long-sanded tongue that cleaned,
organized and let the tiny sacks of calcium sleep and start
the mysterious journey where dream and life are one,
rolling back and forth, entry and exit
scented and calling
Come, come.

 

Ann Cefola is the author of Free Ferry (Upper Hand Press, 2017), and Face Painting in the Dark (Dos Madres Press, 2014); and the translations The Hero (Chax Press, 2018), Alparegho, Like Nothing Else, forthcoming from The Operating System next year, and Hence this cradle (Seismicity Editions, 2007). A Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency recipient, she received the Robert Penn Warren Award judged by John Ashbery. For more information, see www.anncefola.com and www.annogram.blogspot.com.

Sarah Gillespie – Artist

Reflections on the Images of Moths

Looking at Sarah Gillespie’s drawings of moths I find myself absorbed by the complex patterning and subtle colouring on the wings, the delicate antennae and legs, the sense of a life-form both robust and fragile. I am taken aback by their beauty. I am in wonder at Sarah’s technical and aesthetic skill, while at the same time curious about how their elegant shape and remarkable markings arise in the natural world. Questions about ‘art’ and ‘nature’ arise together.

The scientific explanation is that the entire form of the moth arises through processes of random mutation and natural selection that enables them to successfully compete within an ecological niche. This is a causal explanation: the form and pattern that we call a moth is the result of historical influences on the species, constrained, of course, by its biology. Beauty, in this view, is entirely secondary, the projection of the human view.

There is a lot of merit in this explanation, but it misses out a big chunk of the story.

If we follow the poetic ecology of writers such as Andreas Weber and Freya Mathews we can see that life is also a world of inner feelings and expressions. Moths—all living things—are not causal machines. Rather, they maintain themselves in improbable animate form against the forces of entropy, continually expressing their desire for life. An organism not only responds to its environment, it gestures toward it, expressing its wayof being in continual relationship with other beings. It articulates the paradox between autonomy and connection, strength and fragility, life and death; it is always open to transformation and the creation of novelty.

This gesture is itself poetic, artful, an embodied expression of being that precedes thought and explanation. The world speaks itself.

From a Taoist perspective, David Hinton writes, existence ‘wants to recognise itself, wants to celebrate and explain itself’. And no, it is not recklessly anthropocentric to speak of existence in this manner, for the very concept of anthropocentrism is itself anthropocentric, in that is privileges the human and ‘presumes human consciousness is fundamentally different from everything else’.  Our human poetic and artistic expression are themselves part of the body of the world; we are able to grasp the nature of creative reality because we, like all life forms, coexist with this reality.

So art no longer separates we humans from nature, but is life’s creativity fully in us and transformed through us. Sarah’s drawings should not be seen as representations of the moths, nor as expressions of her personal aesthetic; neither ‘realist’ or ‘impressionist’. We can see them as the process of a poetic collaboration and a transformation through which a new expression of being in the world emerges. And you and I, as we behold these drawings, may experience something quite different from the artist. Another transformation becomes possible; for as the painter Edgar Degas is said to have remarked, Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

Hinton, David. Existence. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016.

Mathews, Freya. For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.

Weber, Andreas. Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology. Translated by Rory Bradley. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.

Peter Reason – May 2018

 

Sarah Gillespie studied 15 & 16C methods and materials at the Atelier Neo-Medici in Paris for one year before going on to Oxford University to read Fine Art at the Ruskin.  On graduating from Oxford she won the prestigious Elizabeth Greenshields Award for figurative painting.  With this money in the bank, she took the unusual decision not to head to London, nor go straight into Postgraduate Study, instead moving alone to rural Dorset to paint.  Working slowly and quietly she developed her vision – an unmistakable understanding of the fragility of the more than human world, mixed with a strong feeling for specific place and a willingness to be still and contemplative before it.

For the last seven years she has focused on making works on paper.

Her latest paintings are works of dust and shadow. Intricate and delicate charcoal drawings that capture in remarkable detail the natural. It is a world of dancing atoms and temporal fragility, of moths, blossom, hares and birds, whose cycles of life and death so often remain invisible to human eyes, hidden within the enormity of the landscape or the dark of night.

Her paintings, drawings and engravings are in numerous private and public collections in the UK and abroad and can be seen regularly at the Royal Academy Summer Show.

Sarah Gillespie lives in Devon.

www.sarahgillespie.co.uk

 

Puss Moths (Cerula Vinula) – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Mottled Umber  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
March Moth  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Great Oak Beauty  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
December Moth  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Dark Rustic  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.

Alchemy

by Carol L. Deering

The fox on Riverview, beautiful
as it lay. Small pointed face,
black-tipped snout, white fur lifting
in a paw’s sweep of pathos,
its coat the colors of autumn
fading. Three magpies feasting,
its ribcage a nave.

The fox lay elegant, delicate
for days, until all carnage
rose.

_____A swoon of leaves
rides down the wind. I doze
in my den, let images spin,
editing out
the raucous birds

raising
_______my forepaws,
stalking
_______the foothills
for pinyon-spirited words.

 

Carol L. Deering has twice received the Wyoming Arts Council Poetry Fellowship (2016, judge Rebecca Foust; and 1999, judge Agha Shahid Ali). Her poetry appears in online and traditional journals: recently in Soundings Review, forthcoming in Gyroscope Review and The Kerf. She also has poems in the anthology Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region. Once she had the privilege of interviewing Richard Hugo; that interview, published by Art Notes (Columbia Basin College), was reissued in CutBank.