One mid-life, mid-winter, mid-afternoon, I set out again on my usual bike route on Worcestershire roads and lanes near my home in Droitwich. The light is starting to slip towards the skyline. I’ve just finished re-drafting this piece in the wake of reading Rob Cowen’s Common Ground and I’m hoping the final version of this connected series of articles is now in sight.
I pause at the top of the hill near Crutch Farm and release my name aloud on the wind. Again and again, and again. It’s like letting go of a false mantra. As I listen, the distinctive syllables become a susurrus. No longer recognisable as a name, or even a word, it’s nothing more or less than a leaf-like whisper or the sound of sea, flowing.
I’m back at the precipitation cycle endlessly recycling water vapour. Historically, many of Earth’s land masses would probably once have been underwater: the Cretaceous period (66-145 million years ago) for example… But, whatever its bigger-scale earth-history cycles related to the planet’s orbital geometry around the sun, I don’t want this patch of land to return to ocean because of human pollution and global warming.
I start cycling again, and, as I reach the outskirts of Droitwich, birdsong lilts from the rooftops. I think how much I’d love to be like Rob Cowen’s swifts: ‘Swifts interact instinctively with their environment, navigating by registering minute changes in light, airflow, moisture, pressure and magnetic forces.’
If humans could live like this, there’d be no need for eco-writing. But I’m not a bird; fast cycling is the nearest I get to wings, and one way I discover and watch nature. With this thought, sudden inspiration. Every living thing is part of nature, but I’ve been worrying about how to describe myself within this. I’m a poet who loves nature but I’m also an outsider in terms of not having the expertise to identify many species. ‘Out-outsider’, ‘outside-watcher’, ‘outside-edger’… neither existing terms nor my innovations capture it until ‘wing-thru’ hits me. The phrase encapsulates my bike exploration, bird-linked affinities, recognition of my insignificance within the world, the quick-passing nature of my life and Niedecker’s ‘thru birdstart’ influence.
I’m a ‘wing-thru’! My need for this terminology isn’t about classification per se. Finding the right word clarifies my viewpoint and feels like confirmation of the right to write about environmental concerns in this way, given this background – one that may be shared by a lot of people who care about the world but aren’t naturalists or scientific experts.
I continue cycling late, something I usually avoid because of safety on the unlit roads, the inevitably slower pace and jolting of unseen ruts. But, right here, right now, I’m cycling at the only speed possible. I can’t name the constellations above me, so I don’t know if they’re distant tunnel-ends of light from stars still shining or ones that burnt out before their presence reaches me many billions of miles (and years) away. But there’s a freedom in not being able to name them that’s similar to letting go of my name.
There’s also a sense of a different kind of knowing, a ken that I feel inside which goes beyond naming and language to something more integral and closer even than ‘a kin’. It’s caring and connection combined, an emotional and instinctive knowing that feels older than my individual being; I’m reminded of Rob Cowen’s recognition that in making sense of the place, what he was writing was also a portrait of himself. As he states: ‘These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn’t just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.’
I started this ‘journey’ overwhelmed by lack of purpose. I found instead the whole world around me, and within me. I can’t yet claim to have truly heard a place’s ambient murmur or ‘undersong’. But I can claim that I listen out for the landscape’s sounds, having recognised nature’s significance and wanting to protect the environment. This experience has changed me, it’s changed my writing and the purpose behind much of my recent poetry – to celebrate and protect the world I live in, nature in particular. Will any of this work applied larger scale, with greater awareness, when it comes to climate change? Ultimately, only the future knows. Meantime, what I do know now, in this present moment, is why it matters to me – a kind of caring that hopefully others may share.
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘Photo-poems – Visual Art and Poetry Collaboration for a High-tech Age’ on The High Window (https://thehighwindowpress.com/2018/10/23/s-a-leavesley-photo-poems-visual-art-and-poetry-collaboration-for-a-high-tech-age/, Oct 2018) and ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom (https://mollybloom17.weebly.com/sarah-james.html, Sept 2018).
Bibliography – Part Seven
‘The Geological Formation of Britain’, BBC Radio 4, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n8t48>.
Cowen, Rob, Common Ground (Windmill Books, 2016), quotes from p.207, p.11, p.12.
Macfarlane, Robert, ‘”undersong” – the underlying sounds of a landscape; the ambient murmur of an environment, often hard to hear or tune in to.’ Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 5 June 2017.
Niedecker, Lorine, ‘My Life by Water’, Lorine Niedecker Collected Works (University of California Press, 2002), ed. by Jenny Penberthy, p. 238.