By: Lydia Crow
By: Lydia Crow
By: Lydia Crow
“At the right moment in time, at the point where I had finally secured a moderately average salary, in a city I loved which was filled with friends, and a freedom I had not felt for many a year, I decided to throw everything into chaos.”
– Alexander Michael Crow
On 14 September 2010, Alexander Michael Crow left the city in which he had lived for nine years to live in the wilderness for nearly three months. He didn’t go back. Since he returned to civilisation from the west coast of Scotland in December 2010, he has dedicated his time primarily to writing a series of novels and perfecting various craftwork and bushcraft techniques.
During his time in the wilderness he kept a journal and some of the contents of this can be found on his tumblr blog and on ShiverWriggle, where Alex writes about his adventures under the alias Vague.
To celebrate the third anniversary of his change of lifestyle, Alex agreed to be interviewed to reflect on his adventures in the wilderness, lessons learnt and plans for the future.
It’s fair to say that your outlook on life and how to go about it is significantly different than that which is often promoted as a twenty-first century existence in the media: the trappings, the holidays, the social calendar. How does looking at the rat race from the outside in make you feel now?
I always feel sorry for rats when people use this phrase. After all, they are hugely intelligent, successful creatures. They do well in almost every environment on earth and adapt quickly; it seems to me that the phrase is an injustice to all ratkind.
I suppose my outlook is different and I often ask myself why this is the case. All my answers seem to come across as pretentious, farcical or, worst of all, evangelical. This is not a good thing, and I prefer to address these questions in my work, cunningly disguised as fiction.
As you know, I’ve never been a fan of money. I’ll spend it when I have it, often on other people, then when I don’t have it, well, I can’t spend it. I have spoken about the skills needed to live comfortable in the wilder places, and how they altered my outlook considerably. Knowing that I can find food, water, shelter and make a fire, with very little in the way of equipment, has changed me. I do not really care for our established media, do not watch television as such, carefully choose what I buy into, yet I am well aware of the constraints this media machine attempts to enwrap the individual within. Again, it is something you will read more about in my novels.
And, in this Internet Age, We Are The Media – and this is something that is shaking our world, slowly and calmly at this stage, a soft breeze, but I predict this will change over the coming years, hurricane-like. Watch this space.
Interesting question, given that I now work more hours, and harder, than I have done before! I think this point is crucial – I know a lot of people view what I do as some form of easier option. It’s not. I am lucky in that I have support and love from those closest to me, but this can be a very lonely existence even so.
When I was living out on a hillside, it felt less lonely than sitting at a desk tapping out word after word, and arranging them into something I am ready to throw to the masses. It’s an odd thing.
In many ways finding differences in myself is harder than finding similarities. I suppose there are the obvious things – I’ve gone off drinking, which still seems odd to me. I’ve also been smoke free for some time now. I am in bed earlier, and up earlier. I love thinking how I am sitting at my desk working within minutes of waking.
I think my time in the city built me, prepared me, in ways that differed from my upbringing in Orkney. Now, a return to the sea, and to Scotland, has led me in a different direction – does it mean I am a different person? No, but I am growing, aging, maturing (like a ripe cheese? Or fine wine?) – and ensuring I have a lot of fun whilst doing so – I get annoyed by too-serious-writer-types.
Three years on, what was your defining moment of being in the wilderness? Was there something which happened (or maybe two or three things that happened) that have stayed with you more than your other wilderness experiences?
Difficult one, given that the experience as a whole was what I often think back to, the days blurring, the sunsets merging. If you have ever spent time out in wild places, you realise that it takes a small while (sometimes days) before you start to move at the speed of the nature. It is a slower speed in many ways, yet it is one that takes in everything around you, your senses start to pick things up that are otherwise missed in our modern hurry and haste.
Learning to keep this skill with me is perhaps the most defining thing that has stayed with me – it is with me in everything I do, so I guess it has to be that. I think more and say less now due to this.
In terms of events, I suppose tracking a wildcat was very special, and narrowly avoiding death by meteorite is something I often think of, as is building a home which withstood everything nature threw at it. Finding a woman, of all things! who was willing and able to share my love of the wilderness and get what I see in it (even with the ticks and the clegs) was also very, very, special – and totally unexpected.
It was absolutely crucial to my writing. Not only did it clarify my thinking, I actually scribbled page after page of notes, stories, ideas and plots, while I was out there. A big part of the reason I wanted to live out in the woods was to gain the experience of doing so, so this can translate into my writing. My wilderness novel set in a deep past, A Time of Trees, was the work I originally thought would be my first book, yet it has now morphed and become the third in a series. An odd thing, but one which fits – but you’ll have to wait to read them to find out if you agree.
I also found thinking about my time out there to be useful in gaining a calm mental state (rather like the slower speed I discuss above). Last year (2012) I put together a tumblr with photos, thoughts, and notes from my 2010 experience; this also kept me in touch with the wild, even when I physically couldn’t be.
Have you any plans to head out to the wilderness again for a significant period of time?
At the moment I have other plans afoot, ones which will require a happy tethering of sorts, but I am certainly not ruling out further adventures (likely to be had with company for some, or all, of them). Lars Monsen and Dick Proenneke remain great inspirations, as does the better known (in this country) Ray Mears, and one thing they all have in common is a love of the canoe – expect that to feature at some point.
Canada and Scandinavia are also calling; I would love to experience both by canoe and with snowshoe and pulk.
Finally, bearing in mind that I can walk out my front door and be out in what many people would class as wilderness within a short span of time, I do not feel hard done by. This part of the world is very wild at times.
What would you say to anyone who was considering doing something similar to you? What advice would you offer?
Know your limits. Know things; learn and practice them. Know when to stop. Know that if you enter these places with idiotically macho ideas of challenging nature, she will damage or destroy you – work with her, and it’s a different story. Above all, know yourself – and know you will not remain the same.
Since returning from the wilderness you have predominantly stayed north of the border in Scotland, spending nearly all of your time writing. You haven’t returned to conventional full-time work or the lifestyle you had before. Have you ever had any regrets about leaving your old life behind?
Not my old life or lifestyle, no, but there are people I really miss. I think choosing to abandon facebook has certainly helped me in many ways; I am no longer subject to a barrage of idiocy or inconsequentiality masking the odd enlightened, amusing, or interesting comment. However, this has been at the expense of not having a clue what many of my friends are doing, how they are. I think it is a shame that we are told social media is the best way to keep in touch – my email address hasn’t changed in many years, and many people have this address, but I rarely hear from anyone. Of course, I rarely get in touch with anyone myself. I have my reasons for this, but it doesn’t make it easy.
Your time in the wilderness saw you learning, implementing and mastering various skills and techniques. What new skill or craft would you like to learn or master next?
Furniture making. That’s on my mental list. As is the wiring of marionettes. Even more prosaically, I would like to learn more about plumbing…
As far as wilderness skills go, there’s the canoe and snowshoes mentioned above, I’m also hoping to custom design and make some cold-weather clothing. Many of the skills I use are ever-evolving; learning new knots, ways to light a fire, different uses for plants. Bushcraft is a vast and wide ranging subject, one no one can ever truly master in one lifetime.
Perhaps the most important skill at the moment is that of finishing the first novel. I am not far off this point, despite lots of diversions and distractions, and I cannot wait to learn how to sell it, how to get it out to readers. I’m weirdly looking forward to that.
I intend to have The Care Industry (if indeed I do stick with this originally temporary name), the first novel of my series, finished by the end of this year. I’m also intending to launch my own website in the coming weeks or, more realistically, months, fingers crossed (1st of January at the latest!). I have another cunning project coming soon too – The Shorefolk, which ties together various skills and art forms. More on this soon.
There are exciting wheels in motion regarding some other (presently secret) projects, ones I wish I could talk about, but I cannot, at least not just yet.
As far as travels go, I’m afraid there’s little to be said on the subject. However, these days everything seems to be an adventure, and I don’t need to head into wild places to find it – but I do intend to explore more of the local area – there are materials I need to collect for The Shorefolk, and this is a good excuse to go on some long walks.
I love this time of year, when the temperatures are dropping, some parts of nature frenetically speeding up to gather their supplies, while other parts are slowing, or even gone, headed south for warmer climes. Being up here I notice the seasons more, feel more connected.
A Vague Quote
Warren Ellis, when responding to the question “What do you do when (if) you ever feel like giving up?” said this:
“There is no such goddamn thing. There is only getting up and doing it all over again, smarter and harder, until something ups and fucking kills you, because that’s the only thing big enough to stop you. This is The Great Work, and all you have to do is choose it, not look back and never fucking stop until you’re in your box, under the dirt and flowers are growing between your teeth.
And that is why I’ll never be asked to do motivational speaking. G’night.”
And I agree with him wholeheartedly – whenever I think I’ve made a terrible mistake choosing this path, I just think of this and get the hell on with scribbling some more.
3 – the number of novels that have substantial portions already written.
3, 4, and 10 – numbers of the novels in my series which are predominately written in the first person.
10 – minimum number of novels in the series I am writing.
29 – months I’ve been in a disgustingly happy relationship (despite the present distance).
49 – the number of novels I have read in the last year.
303 – the number of books I have somehow acquired, despite having no money, “normal” job, or income of any real sort. These are real books, not the e-variety…
1592 – number of posts on my various blogs in the past twelve months (many are just captioned photos though, so that’s kinda cheating…).
24089 – number of photos presently on my flickr account.
Alex’s adventures are currently being serialised on ShiverWriggle, with selected journal excerpts and photographs. Alex’s ShiverWriggle blog posts can also be found as early Vague Wanderings posts. You can read more about Alex’s adventures on his tumblr blog, A Fall in Time. The full set of his collected photographs can be accessed in his flickr gallery.
Growing against the friendly grey stone wall of our garden is a perfect Mothers’ Day gift of 2013. Dog roses. They are new but already showing great promise. The rose, in all its forms, has always pleased me – except, perhaps, for the poor blue rose which no one has been able to perfect – no matter how intricate a breeding programme is set up. It is a sad reflection on human intervention in the natural world. Not as sad as hunting animals to extinction but, even so, it makes one ponder.
The true rose is not hailed as a prize winner in any gardening catalogue. The dog rose was adopted by Henry VII as his emblem and, between late Spring and July, it peppers the fields’ edges and roadsides with its delicate petals. No hedgerow can resist its advances and it is the ancestor of all garden roses. The dog rose is the same flower as the wild rose and, in the language of flowers, it symbolises pleasure and pain. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer, artist and politician, in his “Heidenroslein”, illustrates the pleasure and pain in a brutally honest way. A boy saw the beautiful rose and wanted it, he snatched it and he wounded himself as a result:
“Roughly then he snatched his prize
On the moorland growing,
After this he’ll be more wise,
There before his very eyes,
Blood was freely flowing . . . .”
The translation of Goethe’s poem was taught to me as a song when I was in Primary School and has remained with me ever since.
Much symbolism is attached to the rose. It used to be placed over the confessional box as a symbol of silence. After Charles Edward Stuart’s defeat at Culloden, his followers could only express their support SUB ROSA or risk death. The rose is much associated with Prince Charlie. In Kelso to this day, it is believed that the descendants of a rose planted by the man himself on his march south, still thrive in the gardens there.
I look for the first wild rose as I look for the first hawthorn blossom and, later in the year, the first ripe conker – with the eyes of a child. No artefact, no technology nor anything made by man can compare with treasures such as these. There have been many gifted writers whose strengths have been in their written appreciation of the natural world but there is none more haunting than Richard Jefferies:
“The sound of summer is everywhere – in the passing breeze, in the hedge, in the broad-branching trees, in the grass as it swings; all the myriad particles that together make the summer are in motion.”
The beauty of Jefferies is that he creates a scaffold on which our own images of the subject are aired. Jefferies has colour-washed summer with green and invites the reader to contribute personal associations and remembrances.
There are several species of dog rose and they are not easy to distinguish – especially as they grow in amongst other things and the height is one differentiating factor. The downy rose is quite common, for example, but is shorter than the rosa canina, with prickles which are straight. The flowers are a deeper pink but the dog rose’s colours vary from pink to almost white so that is not always helpful for identification purposes. A rose by any other name, however, would smell as sweet – with acknowledgement to Will Shakespeare. A rose is a rose is a rose. Each of the five petals of the dog rose is a cloud of angel blushes. The freshly opened rose reflects the exquisite rebirth of a season for ease and wellbeing. The breath of colour has the power to refresh and give new heart. Its sweetness has ascendancy over other wild flowers.
“Roses” by George Eliot:
“You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet: and it would be
Like sleeping and yet waking, all at once.”
The power of the rose has been recognised in signs associated with Saint Therese of Lisieux. She said that after her death she would let fall a shower of roses and many people have been certain that important changes in their lives have been linked with roses – either their perfume or the rose itself. Such is the magic of the rose. But there is an order in magic. The roses have their own order of appearance. The burnet rose – a creamy white one – is the first of the rose flowers to appear; sweetbriar follows and then our dog rose with its long overhanging branches. The most common rose growing wild in Scotland is the downy rose, the next to appear – and finally the field rose – back to the creamy white again. It favours shadier nooks and blooms as late as August.
Perhaps the single word which has most significance, when considering the dog rose, is “delicacy”. The shell-pink of many of its flowers is matched by the tantalisingly discreet perfume. The power of the rose is snowflake-like in its accessibility. Yet it has its own armament against invaders. My late mother-in-law’s Christian name was Rose and our first born daughter has Rose as one of her forenames. How musical to speak the word. Both beautiful and bold.
I am very excited at the prospect of dog roses flowering in our Scottish garden. They are not absent in the countryside here but the downy rose dominates. The florists make a great deal of money from death. I don’t begrudge them their income but how much more lovely it would be to have a handful of wild rose petals scattered as they lowered one down, than to be surrounded by sculpted arrangements of forced flowers. For this, one would need to leave in the beautiful months of the year though – and who would wish for that?
“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may
Old Time is still aflying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.” (Robert Herrick)
I suspect Herrick had one or two hidden intentions when committing these poetic thoughts to record but, nonetheless, they have been quoted extensively over the centuries. In the folklore of the rose the fallen petals represent a bad omen, but since the flower needs to die in order for the fruit to form, I would query that particular part of the rose’s symbolism. The orange-red and oval hips are a delight in the autumn when the fiery shades of the ageing year warm us into cold winter.
An oil painting of a wild rose, done by my mother many years ago, is an exquisite representation of the flower. Sometimes a created piece stimulates the observance of the natural world – this is one such work of art. If you should look at the painting and then look at a wild rose growing in a hedgerow for example, you would be amazed at the intricacy of the rose’s design. The sight of the same hedgerow ablaze with orange hips in October is stunning. Country people believe that the hips are at their best for wine-making after a frost has been on them. For my part, I would like to SEE the frost on them – complete with spiders’ webs and a general tinselling of the lane or roadside. When I was small in the 1950s, we were given rose-hip syrup because it is rich in vitamin C. The wartime scarcity of oranges prompted utilisation of this very British resource and the regular dosage for the young carried on well into the post war years.
There are moves afoot to create more wild gardens as an alternative to the manicured plot. It would seem that we will be aiding wildlife if we take a less cultivated view of our little areas of green – and the rose has its part to play. This thinking isn’t new though. In Victorian England, William Robinson wrote about “The Wild Garden” and its benefits:
“Many climbing Roses and various other climbers have been planted at the bases of trees and stumps… In another part of the grounds there is a high walk quite away from trees, open and dry, with banks on each side – a sun-walk, with Scotch Roses, Brooms, Sun Roses, Rock Roses, and things that love the sun…”
Here the rose is in a partially controlled landscape.
In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Song”, the other flowers droop and decay but he describes the rose simply as
” . . . .the year’s last rose.”
The rose remains without corruption.
My dog roses WILL grow in our northern garden, reminding me of the deep thought and love of the giver and reawakening an awareness of our island’s timid blushing in late Spring and early Summer.
It may be that the supposed virtue of being open-minded enough to change one’s mind is a relatively modern phenomenon. I often feel slightly repelled by small-minded people who have lived in small villages all their lives and have rather blunt opinions about outsiders, whether in relation to gender, class, sexuality, or race. But how are they so different from most people in history? Or even from our liberal cosmopolitan types, who have simply been exposed to a sufficient diversity of views at a critical period of their lives such that they came to be who they are and think what they think? This is not to say that racism is preferable to openness to racial diversity, but rather, as suggested above, that people in general do not seem to change their minds based on reasoned argumentation. Instead they tend to hold moral or immoral positions for non-moral reasons, for example loyalty to one’s family or tribe. Perhaps deep down we are so fragile that we cannot face the possibility of our beliefs being anything other than ‘the truth’. In light of this, no wonder religions have created such destruction in the name of truth. The question is whether science will fare any better in the long-run. The human desire for truth, however noble, too often seems to culminate in tyranny, as Paul Feyerabend said. It seems that the problem is not the nature of the truth – whether a God or a scientific theory – so much as the actual human need for truth. Perhaps the problems related to truth emerge when we refuse to accept the contingency of our beliefs or affiliations or sense of self, so we then feels obliged to impose these views on others (presumably in order to allay anxiety). What is contingent becomes seen as transcendental – the difference of the other is then often understood as evil in order to protect a precarious faith in an intrinsic identity or order.
This would seem to be counteracted by a greater ethical generosity, but this, it seems, is no easy task, as Nietzsche makes clear when he writes that all the virtues and efficiency of body and soul are acquired laboriously and little by little, through much industry, self-constraint, limitation, through much obstinate, faithful repetition of the same labours, the same renunciations. For someone who dubbed himself the antichrist, Nietzsche sounds more than a little religious when he writes this. This should come as no surprise, as the religions, which are seen by people like Jackie as the greatest violators of this principle of ethical generosity when it comes to acknowledging the value of other modes of thinking, have also developed the best techniques and exercises for cultivating it. From my own perspective, most of the best people I know are religious. This should come as no surprise, as they spend their lives devoted to the cultivation of moral sentiments, while the rest of us just assume that we are good simply by virtue of being human. However it seems that it is rarely the best religious people who have any impact on religion. I guess the same is probably true in philosophy too, which is a slightly depressing thought.
As soon as the unsold Christmas items are off the supermarket shelves, the chocolate eggs appear for Easter. Theologically, I can see a link – but I suspect that God has very little to do with this commercial venture. I’m not pretending that I don’t get excited when I give and receive Easter eggs. They are still a treat for this wean of an adult. Some parents carefully hide small eggs in their gardens so that their offspring can have the fun of finding them. Weather permitting. Traditionally, children would go around their communities asking for eggs – but not chocolate ones. Hens’ eggs were a treat, especially as the church decreed that they shouldn’t be eaten during Lent. Hens didn’t appreciate that their eggs weren’t needed so they kept on laying, and people were pleased to share their stored eggs with anyone who asked for them at Easter.
We always buy free range hens’ eggs from the butcher around the corner. We consider them to be of really good value. Recently we have been given a generous number of eggs by a friend who has a smallholding. A princely gift. Holding each one in my hand, while washing it, I consider the chicken and the egg conundrum. The answer is beyond me. Some are able to use scientific knowledge and skill to fertilize eggs but we cannot answer the chicken/egg question. A hen’s egg is pleasing to hold- it is as if one is taking in some small part of its magic. What powerful magic.
During my time as an infant teacher I had lots of fun teaching the little ones simple songs and rhymes. The simpler they were, the better to remember. Irene Pawsey’s short poem for children, “An Egg For Easter”, is one such :
“I want an egg for Easter,
A browny egg for Easter;
I want an egg for Easter,
So I’ll tell my browny hen.
I’ll take her corn and water,
And show her what I’ve brought her,
And she’ll lay my egg for Easter,
Inside her little pen.”
This ditty is an early lesson for children. Feed and water your hen and you will have your reward.
Even now, after several decades of cooking and baking with eggs, I still feel privileged when I crack open an egg with a double yolk. Or should that be two yolks? The puzzle reminds me of my studies in child development – should one refer to “the twins” or NEVER mention the word “twin” to those two people conceived at the same time?
When the sperm has fertilized the egg, there is the wonderful circle of life in evidence. But which came first?
As children, my brother and I were interested in birds’ eggs but it was really considered a boy’s hobby. Sexism was rife in the good old days. Michael was given someone’s collection of birds’ eggs, carefully preserved in sawdust-filled “Snowcem” tins. This, like a grown-up friend’s butterfly collection, is frowned upon now and I fully understand the thinking behind such condemnation. I have to say, though, that such collections were part and parcel of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and they passed on an awareness and respect for the natural world.
The Willett and Hall “Pocket Book of Common British Birds” has descriptions of the eggs produced by each bird. This book is now considered outdated and many identification guides which are published today, omit the eggs completely – as if the birds give birth to live young. Well I, for one, am not going to steal eggs, I am just interested. Edith Holden captures my imagination with her observations of Nature and her ability to conjure up a vibrant tableau with what is very simple vocabulary, always surprises me:
“April 29th. Gathered some Wild Geranium and Wild Hyacinth. Saw a lovely little Hedge-sparrow’s nest in a Whin-bush with four eggs in it. The Gorse was in full bloom and made a glowing contrast with the blue eggs in the mossy nest. ”
In our house we have many books. We have some very beautiful books which require care but one of my favourites is a tiny tan-coloured book measuring nine cms. by fourteen and a half cms.. I have the dust cover in pieces. “The Observer’s Book Of Birds’ Eggs “. In it you are able to find details of the eggs of just about every bird to breed in Britain – and a sensible list of dont’s :
* don’t handle the eggs or disarrange the nest
* don’t spend more than a minute at the nest
* don’t disturb the natural cover
* don’t leave a track for others to follow
* don’t visit a nest more than once in twenty four hours
* never try to hunt for the nests of rare birds.
There are many casualties in the springtime. Birds like the magpie will make a meal of other birds’ eggs. We don’t have magpies here in Caithness but there is plenty of marauding going on along the sea cliffs. The herring gull is one such marauder. Guillemots, shags and cormorants should know the danger of leaving their eggs unprotected. And everyone knows what little killers the baby cuckoos are. They push all of the chicks and unhatched eggs out of their foster-parents’ home so that the fat little cuckoo creature gets the undivided attention of the dunnocks or reed warblers. These are the birds chosen as host by the female cuckoo. Sometimes meadow pipits may be chosen. Whichever bird is chosen to foster the cuckoo’s egg and, later, the chick, the cuckoo’s egg will match that bird’s own egg. Cuckoos have small eggs for their size so that the victims do not realise there is a new egg in the nest. Not only that, but the female cuckoo will remove an egg from the nest and eat it before laying her own egg there.
Eggs are not, exclusively, birds’. You and I are here to prove that. We tend to refer to the human egg as ovum (being Latin for egg) but, whatever label we give to it, these tiny, tiny eggs, once fertilised, give our kaleidoscope world its saints and sinners. Little thought is given to the how and why when a new baby is born, but those first moments of a child’s life normally produce a sense, in the mother, of having been the bearer of a new order. There has been nothing like this before – this little person is exactly what the world has been needing. Here is the answer to all the questions ever asked.
Offering less potential for world peace is the little tadpole developing from the frog spawn which is floating about in jellied masses in ponds and streams around now. Tiny black dots in the jelly turn into tadpoles after a couple of weeks and then, after about three months, they develop into baby frogs. Few of the tadpoles get that far, however, as many are eaten whilst in the pond. We had a pond in our cottage garden in Lincolnshire and each Spring there would be something of a competition to be the first person to spot the frog spawn. The female frog is capable of laying up to three thousand eggs. Not SO bad then that the infant mortality rate is high. Cutting the grass was always a problem once the little perishers had left the water.
Eggs and Springtime. Easter in Spring. Eggs and Easter. In Scandinavian countries, branches of flowering trees may be brought indoors in advance of Easter so that the little flower buds will open out for Easter Day. My granny used to do that – we have no Scandinavian roots as far as I am aware – except for the “Vikings-got-everywhere” thing. Eggs would be hung on these branches – sometimes hens’ eggs but often today they will be chocolate eggs.
As a child, it was very exciting and special to be given the opportunity to collect hens’ eggs and I don’t remember ever breaking one. Perhaps that is because I didn’t do it very often. It was equally thrilling to find a nest with the greenish-blue speckled eggs of a blackbird. We knew the parent bird would come back if we returned promptly so we didn’t linger, but the image stayed with us and we wondered if the blackbirds singing in the lane the next season had been growing inside those little turquoise gems. We expected to keep them and their own family as neighbours. Eggs and expectations seem to go together so well. This poem points to the new beginning within the egg and the hope which accompanies it :
EGGS AND EXPECTATIONS (Janet Mackintosh Cayley)
Beginning with rarity
Whose advent is the starting point
Of the others’ maturity,
This genesis gives form to the infant dawn
When a new nucleus
Becomes the source of initiation,
Giving rise to the opening chapter
At the outset of the original voyage.
The commencement of this rudimentary journey
Is marked by a single bud
Which, after its nativity,
Emerges from its spheroidal
To await infancy.
Contemporaneously instituting curiosities.
Suppose the world was originally an egg and the Supreme Being cracked it open to reveal the yolk – life itself and all that is needed to sustain it, and the white – to cushion us when we fall. Now imagine that we are fast using up our yolk – not difficult when we take note of what is happening to this planet. How close can the world come to consuming all of its yolk? What amount of albumen will then be required to bolster us? Where will we find it?
Troubling questions with some frightening answers – and worse – no answers at all. But the human race strives to survive. Fear and uncertainty may set in, yet, as the land warms and the daylight is extended each springtime, we eat our Easter eggs; we roll our hard-boiled eggs down steep hills or, as in America, across the President’s lawn; we make little nests for the Easter hare to fill with eggs and we remember that, two thousand years ago, a few friends of a nobody found that a boulder (symbolised by the egg), which had stoppered his tomb, had been rolled away. He was on their side of the tomb.
RUSSIAN EASTER CAROL
Easter eggs! Easter eggs!
Give to him that begs!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
To the poor, open door,
something give from your store!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who hoard, can’t afford –
moth and rust their reward!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who love freely give –
long and well may they live!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Eastertide, like a bride,
comes, and won’t be denied.
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
By: Lydia Crow
ShiverWrigglers may recall Lydia Crow’s letter of complaint to the O2 Academy, Brixton in early December 2012. You can read it online here. Well, Nigel Downs, General Manager at the O2 Academy Brixton, has replied. Here is his response in full:
I can only apologise for not replying to your most elegantly written of complaints dated the 5th December 2012.
Whilst I’m pleased that you enjoyed a fabulous evening with Ben Folds Five, I can only apologise if perhaps your evening was slightly tarnished by what at best can be called an over enthusiastic member of our security team who possibly had good intentions but stretched these a little too far. I have reiterated that perhaps security staff should allow audiences to find their own spots and only help if requested.
The venues policy is that people of all colour, race, sex, sexuality….and height be treated equally and enjoy the shows together. My hope is that everyone attending shows at the venue will be made to feel welcome.
I hope that your experience at the hands of one of our maybe overzealous members of security won’t put you off attending shows at the O2 Academy Brixton and that maybe you can find it within your soul to forgive and maybe accept two pairs of complimentary tickets to a show or shows of your choice. If I can entice you to perhaps give us another chance, perhaps you would like peruse our website (http://www.o2academybrixton.
O2 Academy Brixton
I listen for the geese as they direct each other over our home, from one feeding ground to another. I have tingled when I heard the swifts scream all around me. Winter sounds, summer songs, spring music, autumn calls – they are everywhere. Some grey days, when the world won’t come alive, are menacingly quiet. And then a robin sings. It may be a male, it may be a female – they both sing, often from a hidden spot in a hedge, a bush or a tree. In the springtime – and we are almost there – it is the male who will sing his rich warble to attract a mate. His volume is up and the notes are long and almost plaintive. Later, towards the end of summer, robins seem to disappear for a while. While they are moulting, after breeding, they become a little embarrassed and silent. When autumn comes the robin will begin to sing again so that it can let us know where its winter territories are going to be. The song is quieter than in the springtime though. In his “Songs of Innocence”, William Blake touches on the throbbing song of the little redbreast:
“Pretty, Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, Pretty Robin,
Near my Bosom.”
The little poem is entitled “The Blossom” and who hasn’t seen a picture of the robin singing from a spray of apple blossom? Birdsong has such power. Power to lift a soul from its muddy puddle. I cannot understand how a body has no interest in the sound a bird makes when that same body will travel miles to catch said bird on camera. Why do people have tick-lists of birds they have seen when they could stay and listen and thrill to those exquisite notes? I have only seen the cuckoo once but I have heard it many, many times – even as far north as we now are in Caithness. Wordsworth in “To the Cuckoo”, describes that tantalising sound,
“While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.”
My family honour the first call of the cuckoo. It is a rite of passage. When you hear that sound, there is a certainty through Spring into Summer. My grandparents loved it, my mother still loves it, my own generation loves it and my grown-up children are captivated by it. The cuckoo’s loud and monotonous two-syllable call IS Spring. This is the cuckoo’s courtship and will attract a female for the male but, nonetheless, to the human ear, it IS Spring. But back to our little robin. The robin and the wren, whose song is pure thrill, will punctuate a winter’s day with their territorial calls but, as the March days lengthen, the thrush will join in and the blue tits and great tits too. Spring migrants will soon arrive and add their voices. The willow warblers sing without pause to make certain of their territories. Their song is soft and liquid with notes descending. The tune is beautiful.
Birdsong is not limited to the daytime. One of the most memorable sounds of the first part of Spring is the song of the tawny owl. The male and female make the well-known “tu-whit, tu-whoo” sound by calling to each other – a merry note, so says Shakespeare – so it must be! Their song is much pleasanter to the ear than the call of the barn owl which can be pretty scary. It ranges from a hiss to an eerie blood-curdling scream – hence the “screech owl”. We have both here. We sometimes hear the tawnies from our house and the barn owls we spot from the car when we are driving home in the evenings. It was much the same in Lincolnshire. The tawny owls frequented the trees at the bottom of the garden and a great ghost of a barn owl would fly low alongside the car of an evening. Their calls please me. As the cuckoo is symbolic of Spring, so the owl is emblematic of the night – except for the short-eared owl which is an opportunist and hunts in the daytime too. Last year, on a walk, we spotted one flying ahead of us, then stopping, then flying on- rather as a wheatear does. It isn’t classic owl behaviour but that is what happened.
Some twenty years ago, living in a wrecker’s cottage named “Grey Gulls”, we were able to watch and listen to the various gulls sailing the skies of Orkney. Their songs range from the bark of the great black-back to the shrill whistle of the common gull. Now that we are across the Pentland Firth from there, we hear them still. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between the bubbling trill of the curlew and the laughing mew of the herring gull. We hear all of the sounds which the herring gulls make as they are all around us throughout the year. We throw an apple core onto the garden and ZAP! a herring gull is down on it and swallowing it in its entirety. You can even watch it go down the neck of the bird. The mafia of gulls which exists in our neighbourhood contrasts vividly with the solitary thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush”. Hardy claims hope for the new century in the song of the thrush. He called it a blessed hope which the thrush knew of but the writer did not. It turned out to be a century which brought two conflicts on world scale – but our planet survived and is currently stepping gingerly into a new millenium. While the birds continue to sing, there is hope for all our tomorrows.
Another favourite birdsong is the cooing of the dove. Often, when I am at my desk, I can hear the doves in the trees which fill our square. Perhaps it is because of the part the dove plays in the Christian scriptures, but that sound is such peace, such calm – and clears my fuddled head every time I hear it. They are silvery sweet birds and I am always glad to see them share the birdseed in the garden. Another sound they make, which I consider to be friendly and sociable, is the tuck-tuck-tuck as they pick up the seed which is scattered daily on the roof of my little metal tool shed. I first met the modest dove when we lived near to the village school and the trees surrounding it had cooing doves sharing their secrets with this voyeuristic little girl. I hope there will always be a pair of cooing collared doves close by.
The messages which we call birdsong don’t stop after the breeding season. John Keats, in his very well-known “To Autumn”, was aware of the redbreast whistling from a garden croft and gathering swallows twittering in the skies. At the back end of the year those twittering swallows sit on the wires, which run to and from our home, calling to each other. The sound is particularly lovely as it will likely be the last time we hear from them for a while. Their relative, the house martin, is another twitterer. We shared our first home with a pair of house martins. They would return each year until our children were old enough for boisterous games below the birds’ pitch. We would listen to their chattering and watch them build as they came to and fro with mud for their nest. The sounds of the martins and of our children playing, blend in my memory, transporting me to delightful summers when the returning martins were not as new to parenting as we were. When the children were much older we lived in an old cottage with a roof which was in part supported by a massive tree trunk. The swifts would nest in that roof year after year and wake us with the summer dawn – yet staying up late in the evening. Their families – I am sure there cannot have been only one family – sounded more like rats scurrying about up there than birds. Don’t read Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service” while you have visiting swifts in your attic!
The tiny wrens make excellent parents and the strong family bond is reflected in the way the young of the first brood often help their parents in feeding the next lot of babies. Both sexes sing during courtship and their vocalising is a joy to hear:
“You know I love the wren
Yodelling for me,
Yammering as he defends his den,
Yelling to save his mate –
Yet you will hear his song, then
Yesterdays will be as today.” ( Janet Mackintosh Cayley )
The poor little things are fairly terrified of the jackdaws who come here to join in the breakfast party in our back garden. The jackdaws come in their tens. Their “chack-chack-chack” is enough to frighten the smaller birds and yet, to me, it is an amiable sound, almost as if they are telling me that Jack and Jack and Jack have all arrived and send greetings.
By the end of March, garden bird activity becomes quite intense. As well as our robins, wrens, thrushes and tits, the chaffinches, dunnocks and greenfinches join in the music. Some, you just hear and rarely, if ever, see – like the wee goldcrest. The summer visitors, such as the blackcap and the chiff-chaff, arrive in April. The orchestra expands until, in early June, birdsong is everywhere. How anyone cannot love the passion in each aria, I will never understand. They sing out with everything they can give and then, when light is all around them, they come down to the ground and look for food. It is thought that the song thrush starts off the dawn chorus when it is still dark and the great tits, blackbirds and wrens are also early birds. But they are unable to catch the worm until it is light. Then they tank up and, it seems, they give an encore later in the morning – almost a thank you for the food they have found.
There have been many times when the dawn chorus has seemed to me so beautiful that it has almost made me cry. There are some sounds which make your nose tingle, your eyes fill and simply pick up you breath and run away with it. The dawn chorus is choral singing of the heavenly order. Two of our lovely daughters were born early in the morning – one in Spring and the other in early Summer. They were welcomed into the world by the same celestial choir which will sing us through Spring and into Summer 2013. They sang away the pain of someone dear who had suffered with Motor Neurone Disease. The music is there all our lives through:
“A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are
in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.” (Walt Whitman 1819-92)
A lot of people think of philosophers as quite odd fish, and rightly so. Often this has to do with the fact that they often try and convince you that tables are not really there, for example. Philosophy and madness have much in common – indeed Wittgenstein referred to philosophy as a kind of sickness. While we may not wish to take him too literally, the philosopher’s predilection for abstraction and alienation, for detachment from the body, from the world, and so on, for equivocating endlessly on the existence or non-existence of tables, for finding problems and paradoxes in what the rest of us take for granted, offers some support to Wittgenstein’s diagnosis. Jackie is prepared to concede that a table is there, but that we cannot know this ‘objectively’. I have often pointed at the table, made claims to its wooden structure as an indicator of its objective status as a table, while Jackie would shake his head and laugh at me. Needless to say I find such debates very trying on the old patience. Despite my love of philosophy, I have never been troubled by Matrix-style questions of brains in vats or the non-objective status of tables.
What has always fascinated me is that in all the time I’ve known him, he has never really veered from his position at all. I have often thought this must be quite boring, but maybe this is youth talking. Jackie is the sort of person who could see a talk on anything and then ask pretty much the same question, in which he tries to ascertain whether the speaker is claiming that what he is speaking about is in fact ‘an objective truth’. I once asked him about why he does this and questioned whether it doesn’t get a bit dull after a while. Don’t humans, like snakes, need to shed their skins from time to time in order to avoid perishing, I asked him? At this point, Jackie launched into a tirade about all the damage that had been done in the name of truth, and so on. It reminded me, as I often need reminding, that people get hurt and they carry their hurts, often in very raw forms, for the rest of their lives. Over half a century later, Jackie was still nursing the wounds of his Catholic upbringing, just like his contemporary Michel Foucault, who also spent much of his life railing against his Catholic upbringing by pointing to the social construction of our truths and their links to oppressive power structures.
For Jackie the important point was that all truth and reality is filtered through human eyes, and therefore can never be objective. So for me to claim that the table exists objectively seems patently absurd to Jackie – hence the laughing at me. Often, however, when philosophers take a strong stance like Jackie’s, it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, one day Dario asked Jackie if the world therefore did not exist before the first human who could perceive it. If it in fact did exist, this would be an objective truth and his whole system would collapse. Jackie felt that this was not a question that he could address, especially as to stick to his position would have made him sound dangerously like someone who believed that the world emerged at the same time as man, presumably as the result of some divine power and creator of humans. That said, as far as I know, he is still yet to modify his position; he still asks the same questions and denies the objective status of tables. Human, all too human…
Jackie is just one example, but I guess I have found myself so often surprised by the rather irrational foundations for the core beliefs people hold all their lives. Maybe I was naive to expect more from a society of philosophers, but in the end philosophers may not be the truth seekers they present themselves as, so much as people smart enough to use subtle logical arguments to defend their generally rather irrationally held beliefs. Most other people just punch you if you challenge their deep beliefs, so I guess the philosophical approach is the preferable one (although perhaps the less honest one). Perhaps it’s a bit strong to call philosophers irrational in their beliefs, but they are certainly emotional. William James saw this when he wrote that articulate reasons are only cogent for us when our inarticulate feelings of reality have been impressed in favour of the same conclusion. For James, the whole person is in play when we form our philosophical opinions, not just the disengaged, lucid, logical part. In this sense, the philosophical ideal of determining a position’s plausibility or absurdity rarely has its source in a process of rational deliberation.
At this point it is worth taking a bit of a digression from the bickering and squabbling, specifically a more philosophical digression. I always feel more comfortable when the members of the society fall out over philosophical ideas rather than ideas about what philosophy is. These latter meta-philosophical questions tend to lead to far more damaging and long-term splits, in my experience. There was always one philosophical question that could guarantee a room united in disagreement, a disagreement that transcended any sectarian bickering – the question of God.
It would be fair to say that most of the membership is comprised of atheists of differing levels of militancy. Many people come to philosophy to find meaning in life following the much proclaimed death of God. They are generally left disappointed. One may speculate that this is what leads to the rather pessimistic and nihilistic tendencies alluded to earlier. If post-Christian philosophy has taught us anything about how to live, it is that the responsibility lies firmly on the shoulders of the individual. The reality is that for almost every human since Nietzsche, who seemed to see this radical autonomy as a source of great joy, this responsibility has been a burden far too weighty to bear. 20th century philosophy, especially Sartre’s existentialism, tended to berate the individual for taking refuge in a belief that we are less than radically free – this was seen as a dishonest move, an example of bad faith. Rousseau famously wrote that men are born free, but are everywhere in chains. In our time, stripped (largely) of God, class structures, hierarchies, and so on, the sad truth is that these chains are largely of our own making. A few people do of course seek freedom, but as some wit pointed out, to assume that because these few seek freedom that we all seek freedom is like thinking that, because there are flying fish, it is in the nature of fish to fly. I would have to agree, such is our weakness, fragility and the undeniably weighty burden of freedom. Love of truth may be terrible and mighty; the quest for freedom is equally treacherous. Some in the philosophy society continue to dream of freedom, while the rest find some consolation in fighting for a world without God.
Unofficial leader and guru of the society’s God bashing contingent was Jackie Graziano, sailor, artist, teacher, writer, revolutionary, post-modernist, humanist and, primarily, atheist. It is difficult to imagine how hurt some people can be by religion. To me it has always seemed like fairly harmless fun, but for some the desire to overturn the oppressive power of religions was a life-long one. Jackie was one such character. In pursuit of this goal, Jackie has veered in the course of his life from Marxism to Existentialism and finally ended up with Postmodernism. If in the end, as Nietzsche wrote, every great philosophy has been the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir, the same may presumably be said for every less-than-great philosophy, into which category I would reluctantly have to consign Jackie’s.