Discover more from Into the Deep Woods
At Owl Light
Creating from the edge of the dark
The first thing I do every day is walk. I get up, wolf a piece of toast, gulp a glass of water, and then I’m out for a couple of hours, on the towpath or the ridge. Though I love the canal I prefer the high places for walking because up there you can almost guarantee almost silence. This morning I lost the dogs for half an hour. They must have picked up the scent of a fox and they disappeared into the high bracken, returning with wide, shameless smiles. While I waited for them I listened. The distant note of a skylark and down in the valley, just faintly, the rumble of a tractor. The rest of the time it was moon silent. Once the dogs had finished their chase we walked up to the trig point and on to the half dome hill above Gladestry, then circled back. Later in the morning I was out walking again, this time on my own. Then again in the afternoon. By evening my hips were aching, but just after sunset I went walking again.
There’s a restlessness in me I can only temporarily quell, never cure. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m old and my hips have given up. Julia has a friend who is 93 and has a spinal issue which means she has to sit all day in a chair. She reads lots of books. I read a lot too, but reading has to be parenthesised with walking - walk, read, write - they’ve always been interdependent acts for me. If one stops they all will, of that I’m certain.
When I was at school my teachers made me sit at the front of class. This was the only solution they could think of to stop me from staring out of the windows, to make me concentrate on the blackboard. Instead it taught me how to stare through blackboards, and eventually through any solid thing. Sometimes people think I’m rude because I drift off when they’re talking to me. I’m not bored, I’m trying to listen, but it just happens. Sometimes people think I’m aloof, which I’m not. Almost all people think I’m distant, which I am. I can’t help it, distances are what I’m drawn to.
I’ve only ever been able to concentrate on things for a few minutes at a time. I paint in bursts. I sketch a few outlines on a sheet of paper, then flood it with water, then quickly apply ink and salt, which spreads and runs in all directions. I rush to control it, then have to leave it for a while. When the paper is a little drier I flood it again and rush again with the ink and salt. Over and over. I’m writing this piece in bursts. An hour ago I was staring at five words with no clue where to take them. Then a sentence came. Then coffee. The sentence turned into a paragraph. Then a short walk and while I was walking I realised what the piece was about. Another paragraph appeared. Then I did some work on a picture, and came back to write this sentence (though I think it’s time for another coffee). This is not procrastination, it’s process.
I was delighted a few years back when I was being pitched to by a slick London agency for a work project. They said they wanted to work in sprints, short periods of intense teamwork. It’s a term I’d never heard of. I hired them on the spot because they’d given me a window into my own creative process. I’m a sprinter (a sprinter who walks). But I worry that this process of mine is just a shred of something more whole; that I’m missing an important part of my creative practice which could take my work to richer places. Is the slog better than the sprint?
Our culture increasingly deals in fragments. The greatest creation of the modern era: the internet, is a vast library of shreds, tiny bursts of information, shards of data-filled light. Our most consumed creative medium: video, pushes 24 images per second at our eyes and the jump cut is the storytelling technique it uses most.
It could be that I’m only partially awake, that my little flashes of inspiration are just malfunctions of a broken engine spluttering temporarily into life. But I’m reminded of a statement by the mindfulness coach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, that the purpose of meditation is not to focus on the breath, but to continually return to it after being distracted. Isn’t this the way we all tend to life - in bursts? We’re a species which spends most of its time distracted. A burned memory I have is of a Turkana hunter, dressed in skins, sitting on a hand-carved stool in the middle of the Kenyan desert, spear loosely held in one hand. I watched him for an hour or more and he only moved occasionally to swat a fly. Antelope gathered in the thorn thickets. Elephants lumbered by. He sat gazing through it all, off in a dreamland of his own conjuring. Suddenly, he stood up, raised his spear, sprinted away and disappeared into the dust thick air. What is happening to us during these periods when we’re seemingly tuned out? Are we instead tuned in, watching and waiting subconsciously for the alignment of flows which will enable us to take another leap? What matters is the return.
I like to walk at twilight. You don’t have to be on a high hill to feel the calm at this time of day. So this evening I walked through our ancient little town, past the leaning timber buildings, down the narrow alleyways between the half-collapsed burgage walls, watched by hunting cats and drowsy jackdaws. I walked out into the fields and woods that rise above the church. This place is closely entwined with its past somehow, not via its old bricks, oak beams and dusty written records; there’s something in the way it breathes. I don’t know any other place like it and I’m in love. Up the path from the stream, past the garden filled with black hollyhocks, the stone cottages perched on the edge of the old castle mound, the rusted iron kissing gate. Into the sheep pasture beneath the wood, its trees now black against the deep evening sky. The ewes all sprint from me as if I were a ghost, their hooves drumming. As they rush away the big beech trees pull the silence down like a blanket and all I can hear is my feet landing softly in the deep grass. Then, as I reach the second gate a tawny owl calls. And there it is again, the sudden attention as the world bursts alive through a firework of sound. If I could only hang onto it.
For me a tawny owl’s call is a work of art. Art exists to extend wakefulness. It’s why we need it now, in these times of enfolding darkness, more than ever. Art comes out of the dark, makes shapes from shadows, untangles from the lightless knots we carry inside us. The best art I know contains a shriek and a howl (wonderful, isn’t it, that the word owl is contained within howl).
I’m walking in the almost dark, the almost silence. The owl has gone silent but I’ll carry its call home with me. It will keep me awake for hours.
Found Things - Recommendations this week:
I love these two films, both produced by Patagonia and available to watch on their YouTube channel. They capture ideals that I hold onto to dearly: to live simply in place and to devote yourself to the wild.
Treeline is a praise poem to trees, to some of the oldest trees on earth, and to the people who devote their lives to them. It has some of the most beautiful landscape cinematography I’ve seen. Oh, how I’d love to snow surf through a winter forest!
The High Life is a short documentary about a remarkable mother who takes her tiny children to live in a mountain refuge high in the French Alps each summer season; and the last summer before the refuge, the oldest in the Chamonix area, is closed and replaced.
Wishing you a wild and wonderful week,
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