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Between a Squeal and a Bawl
The making of a squall
Last night I kept the windows open on Masquerade, lying in bed staring up at the trees bordering the canal as they leaned and shook, leaves flying. Rain battered the boat, spattering on the metal roof, a thousand, a hundred thousand tiny hammers. We’re only a few miles from the sea here, and the first line of the Welsh mountains looms over us. Moist air hits the slopes, cools, precipitates and falls. It must be one of the wettest places on earth. Squalls blow in almost daily. Yesterday we had them all day, the trees thrashing, then suddenly going utterly still, before the next one rushed in, snapping twigs and branches.
A long time ago, when I was young and bold, I was camping in the Congo rainforest. It was early in the morning, the sun just risen, and I was sitting next to the campfire, boiling water in a pan. The sky was clear blue. Then it was black. Then the trees began moving all at once. The rain came down so hard that the campsite was flooded in minutes. The image I still have in my mind of that morning is the campfire floating off into the trees, flames still rising from the not-yet-sodden sticks.
A squall happens when small areas of high and low pressure air collide, particles rushing in from the higher density area to the lower, trying to achieve equilibrium. They form as mini weather systems within greater systems. They can be lone forms or they can gather into lines, U shapes, commas. At sea and on large lakes they sometimes happen without warning, with no visible clouds, whipping up huge, boat swamping waves. They’re tangles of air unravelling, knots in the flow of the atmosphere.
The word squall is a phonic merging of squeal and bawl. It’s thought to come from old Norse, meaning to cry out, to scream, originally referring to the shrieks of birds. When the squalls passed through last night, the metal cowl on Masquearade’s chimney (which is shaped like a bird) kept turning, squealing as it moved. It felt ominous, something more powerful than weather.
Centuries ago squalls which interrupted the passage of ships were thought to have been caused by witches, acts of magic, cauldrons of air rapidly stirred. Women thought to have these powers were tragically murdered in their thousands. A rational age followed, we discovered air particles, began to monitor them, measure and understand their behaviour, and our industries and technologies started to change the atmosphere. Now squalls are more frequent, angrier and it has been proven without doubt that human beings cause them. But there’s hope in this new understanding. As the architect and thinker Indy Johar states: “We’re starting to see the world in terms of entanglements.”
Squalls happen in the atmosphere and in space. There are squalls on the sun. There are squalls of suns. They are, then, part of the grand, mysterious pattern of the universe, as are we, which is why we have squalls inside us. “They’re all moody, the Roberts’s” My aunty Jean used to gleefully tell anyone who would listen. And she was right. I don’t know where my moods come from. Most days I wake up happily, listening to jackdaws toddling across the roof, or to Julia singing, or to the lift of the boat as another narrowboat passes. I walk a few miles in the sunshine, my dogs running in front of me, both ecstatic to be alive. And then the squall gathers from nowhere. It gets hold of me, spins me round, and knocks me down. I’m a dark, self-hating thing. It can last a few minutes or a few hours. It feels like a rearranging of particles, a flow of energy from one space to another. Perhaps these moods are girdings, waves of compression before a creative expansion happens, the fear and trepidation before the adventure. Or perhaps they simply come out of the air - thought squalls. There’s something slightly shamanic in artists. We’re deeply connected to things, and deep connections can be dangerous. I’m trying to see these shifts in my mood as the first phase of a regeneration, from the word gene - to give birth. They’re the beginnings of an act of generosity.
A scientific viewpoint sees our physical forms as containers of particles. But we also know that the opposite is as true. We’re contained by our particles, temporary entanglements in their flow. We human beings, like all other beings - antelopes and sunfish, copper beech trees and stag-horn corals, mayflies and box jellyfish - are temporary entities rushing from one state to another, something like squalls.
It’s a magical experience being on a boat in a squall, even here on this tiny canal, which isn’t much wider than a ditch. Nothing is stationery. The boat rocks and strains at its ropes; water churns and burbles beneath the hull; the gaps in the windows whistle and you can feel the cold air from outside rushing in, caressing your face. Stripes of rain dissolve into streams running down each pane of glass. Light the gas on the stove and the flame blows out. Life is being re-arranged. Then the calm arrives, everything slows, goes still. We take our new shapes.
This week’s recommendations:
A reader introduced me to the paintings of the Nobel prize winning writer and artist, Gao Xingjian, which are wonderful (Thank you Mark!). Xingjian uses a brush and ink technique which I’ve been trying to to master for years, allowing the ink to create forms, even landscapes of its own. Here is an example, there are many others online:
I’ve been obsessing over a painting by Barbara Rae, also an abstract landscape, but made with mixed media, rich with colour and texture - blues and ochres, sun oranges, berry purples, crackle glazes and etched lines. It’s called Sea Marks (more work can be viewed on the artist’s website at barbararae.com)
I’ve been tillering Masquerade under some of the old stone bridges on the canal this week. Getting a 53 foot boat through these tiny spaces is a challenge, particularly as many of them are positioned on a bend in the canal. Bridge 77 is a place where we constantly run aground and have to pole the boat off the silt. But the bridge itself is beautiful, a work of art. Here it is:
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