Saturday, 31 October 2015

How did Pytheas not get lost?
Tidying up the boat for the winter, we've packed up all the pilotage books, maps and guides, and brought them home to keep them dry. This, and a comment made by a recent visitor, make me reflect on how on earth Pytheas found his way around these isles more than two thousand years ago.

The visitor, when I said we'd been at sea for about 90 days this summer, expressed amazement at how we manage to avoid rocks and navigate around the coast. I told her that, in addition to Bill, who with decades of lobster hunting experience seems to have his own unique underwater sensors, we have a stack of charts and pilotage books. The Clyde Cruising Club, in particular, produce brilliant books detailing thousands of harbours and anchorages, with detailed maps and directions and all kinds of useful information about hazards.

We also have a depth sounder, which helps, although I still trust my plumbline  more than I do the electronics. I always think of Pytheas as I dangle the bit of lead on a string down into shallows, as this technology without doubt goes all the way back to the iron age and beyond.

But Pytheas didn't have pilotage books. Or did he? Incredibly, even as far back as the sixth century BC there was a written guide to mariners in the Mediterranean, called a 'periplus', containing detailed sailing directions to Massalia (where Pytheas lived). And there were even written accounts of journeying out into the Atlantic, one by a Carthaginian called Himilco, who possibly sailed far west (conceivably even to the Sargasso sea) in the fifth century BC. Pytheas' own book, On the Ocean, was widely quoted and used as a source of travel information, not least by Rufus Avienus, the Roman author of Ora Maritima, a collection of sea lore tracing a journey from a northern part of the Atlantic coast back into the Mediterranean.

Avienus wrote his account in the form of a poem. The pilotage books we use today are staunchly prosaic, but I like to think that back in Pytheas' day, a great deal of navigation information would have been in the form of poetry. Most coastal lore and sailing directions would have been passed on orally, probably from generation to generation of navigators, and therefore it was probably full of songs, rhymes and good stories to help it be as memorable as possible. Just as indigenous Australians have 'song lines' to enable them to find their way vast distances across the outback, I imagine sea captains of Pytheas' day could well have sung their way around dangerous headlands and told their children folk tales to help them to remember sea hazards like rocks and strong currents.

So I reckon Pytheas found his way by joining the voyages of experienced seamen and women who held their pilotage know-how in their heads as songs and poems. Anyone for some poetic versions of the Clyde Cruising Club books, or a setting of Reeds Almanac to some rousing tunes?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Starting to think about hibernation

It's a beautiful season. Yesterday it was sunny and glorious and we took the boat out for our last sail of the year. Although we set off and arrived back in harbour to calm, blue conditions, out on the loch the wind was fierce. We had to reef, then reef again, and even so the gusts were blasting us over at nearly 40 degrees. The east wind is funnelled through the mountains here and it arrives in lumps that are erratic and full of crazy energy. It really is as if the mountains are throwing fistfuls of air at us. The contrast between the moments of calm and flurries of wind are exhilerating, and a bit scary.

The trees are responding here too. Docile one moment, when a gust comes they are dancing and hurling their leaves around with gusto. The birches have been golden for weeks, and the aspen stands are turning, one after another, great flames through the woods. Now the hazels are starting to turn as well. It won't be long before the leaves are all on the woodland floor and the year will be ended.

I await the first frost. That's the official start of winter here on the croft. It'll last until the first primrose, and it is always long, the longest season of the year.

Life will change. We're settled into the Great Hall in the woods. No more nights at the caravan at the shore or on the boat until springtime. A fire will be lit at dusk or earlier if it's overcast and no sunshine heats the shed we're in. We'll begin the game of trying to get up and walk up to the top of the hill to beat the sun getting up over the horizon. Our diet will change to porridge and parsnips and winter greens, dry beans soaked on the stove overnight. We'll sprout beansprouts to replace the salads from the garden. There will be long evenings for reading. Perhaps I'll get the knitting out.

The season's changing. That's good. I like hibernation. It reminds me of what the bears will be doing. We are animals. We should behave differently in winter.

One of my bugbears with modern society is how life is expected to be the same all year round. Children go to school for the same hours in the winter as in the summer. A 9-to-5 working day takes no account of the seasonal variations. Supermarkets carry almost identical food stock for 12 months of the year. I'm sure it's not good for us, physically or emotionally.

I exort everyone to vary their lifestyle to reflect the season, to move furniture around or somehow make a change to our environment, so we know we're in our winter den.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Ten bear poems

I am not the only writer for whom bears are their muse, and I'm not thinking here of nursery rhymes, doggerel or poems for children about teddy bears, but grown-up poems about real life, if sometimes somewhat mythical, bears.
  1. Top of the list is Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear' from his 1968 collection Body Rags (and also in his Selected Poems). This is a strange and wonderful telling of a winter hunt of a bear, wounding the animal, following the trail of blood and climaxing when the hunter reaches the bear and kills him. 'I... tear him down his whole length/ and open him and climb in / and close him up after me, against the wind / and sleep.'  And thus there is a 'parabola of bear-transcendence' in which the poet becomes the bear. Extraordinary and totemic. 
  2. There's an echo of the same idea in Margaret Atwood's 'Bear Lament.' in her 2007 collection The Door. 'You once believed if you could only / crawl inside a bear, its fat and fur, / lick with its stubby tongue, take on / its ancient shape, its big paw /big paw big paw big paw / heavy-footed plod that keeps / the worldwide earthwork solid, this would // save you, in a crisis.' This idea of the bear as holding the earth together is so important, the recognition that it is a keystone of our ecosystems and that without them, we are threatened. The poem ends with the cry 'Oh bear, what now? And will the ground still hold? And how much longer?'
  3. Which of Ted Hughes' bear poems to choose? It has to be 'The Bear', from the 1967 collection Wodwo. 'In the huge, wide-open, sleeping-eye of the mountain / The bear is the gleam in the pupil / Ready to awake / And instantly focus.' Here is the bear as our guide from this life into death, or into another life.
  4. Much more recent is the wonderful 2012 collection Ice by Gillian Clarke, throughout which a polar bear is the presiding spirit. Forget some of the trite use of Ursus Maritimus as the 'poster bear' of climate change, here is the real thing, vulnerable and powerful. In the opening poem, 'Polar', she says,  ' I want him alive. / I want him fierce / with belly and breath and  growl and beating heart, / I want him dangerous...'
  5. J O Morgan's In Casting Off (published by Happenstance this year), is another collection with the presence of a white bear hovering in the margins of many poems. It makes itself known, splendidly, fishing in 'Dividing Line', when a leaping salmon caught by a bear 'ceases at once to be shape - becomes fish. // Its sideways thrash about the claws / that have punctured its course, that have drawn it / clear from its universe of water.... The blood / of the fish / becoming / the blood / of the bear.'
  6.  Mary Oliver's 'Truro Bear' (from The Truro Bear and other Adventures, 2008) is a possible bear, seen in the woods by people, 'three or four, / or two, or one.' She hasn't seen it herself, but she's watching out, and 'everywhere I look on the scratchy hillsides / shadows seem to grow shoulders.' Oh, I so know what that is like!
  7. There are lots of bears in Chrissy Williams' 2013 pamphlet Flying into the Bear, and some favourite lines. 'Everyone could use a  bear sometimes, everyone could use a wild bear..' So, to choose just one, it's 'The Invisible Bear', the one you fly into if you lie back at night and look up into the sky. 'There's not much comfort in a bear you can see through, but then / in times of not much comfort, reach out for what you can.'
  8. 'Eliza and the Bear' is the long title poem by Eleanor Rees' 2009 collection. It begins, 'I did not know my lover was a bear', and goes on from there...
  9. I have to include Kevin Cadwallender's Bear and the Elementals, which is online here, and consists entirely of bear poems, my favourite of which is, I think, 'Bear Somnus'. 'In the roll and scratch and snore / of winter, a dream enters .. death calls too, reminding / Bear that sleep is its cousin / and dreams are messengers.' 
  10. Finally, am I allowed to include one of mine? It's in my 2007 collection Castings, which you can get here, and given the time of year, its a seasonally appropriate autumn 'Polar Bear', hanging out in the multi-coloured woods near Churchill, Canada.

    Low-angled sun gleams
    through claret leaves
    and caribou lichens pale green
    in the first skiff of snow.

    A frozen hare watches
    the flight of a falcon
    and spruce fingers point
    where the winds will blow.

    Tamarack needles flutter
    and flurries of snow buntings dart
    over flaming jade, bronze
    and copper-leaved willow.

    Photographers get set to lie
    to freeze-frame your world
    starched, ice-bleached arctic
    whitewashing your rainbow.

    Here you lie in the forest
    a snoozing sumo wrestler
    under trees barely able to hold
    up the sky, so heavy with snow.

     So, which bear poems would you include in the list?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tiny bird, enormous trust

A goldcrest flitted into my writing turret while I was scribbling. It panicked, battered itself on the windows trying to find a way out, then hid behind the chest of drawers. After a while it fluttered around again, once more struggling to find an exit. Eventually it gave up and let me pick it up.

I held it in my hand. It weighed nothing at all. Apparantly a fat one might get to about 5 grammes.

I was humbled. It didn't struggle or scratch as I took it outside. Did it know I wished it no harm, only freedom? Or was it just semi-concussed?

It was still, utterly acquiescent as I carried it out into the cool air outside. It stumbled off my hand onto the decking and sat there, opening and closing its beak in silent speech. One leg was twisted under it and it was cobwebby from the corner of my shed. I was worried that I had hurt it, and crouched nearby, watching.

A breeze caught it and it was so light, little thing, that it lifted like a leaf. Then its wings trilled a beat and it landed itself back on the deck. Its leg was sorted out and it hopped a bit, closing its beak, looking as if it was coming to. Eventually it flew experimentally, successfully, into the nearest birch and sat clutching a twig, nodding as if satisfied that its adventure had reached a satisfactory conclusion. Then it fell to tapping and nibbling, hunting its usual prey.

Did it come into my writing room to show me how wonderful the world is? To remind me to stop, look and marvel? To tell me I am just one other animal in a forest of kindred animals?


tiny in my hand
- your trust is as huge
as the birch tree