Monday, 12 August 2013

Life, death and cats

Yes, it has been a while! Back in March I was planning  to write about our first winter on the canal, thinking that winter had ended and that we'd got off lightly. But then came the ice. Every morning we awoke to a frozen canal, around the beginning of British Summer Time. And with the return to winter came a succession of events, chaotic and confusing. Our little grey cat died suddenly one Sunday. However, she didn't suffer any long drawnout illness and we knew she chose to go. A friendship became more established as a result - we only knew one person at the time who would not bat an eye if we turned up at his boat at 8am with a dead cat, asking to borrow a spade. Not only did he lend the spade, but also found a lovely spot in the woods where the wild garlic grows, and dug the hole in the half-frozen stoney ground.
We went to a Quaker funeral not long after this, of a new friend, someone we would have liked to have got to know and had long conversations with about nature. She was approaching old-age, very busy and active and she took her own life so that she would not become a burden to anyone. I still don't know which I find more upsetting and shocking - that she took her own life or her reasons for doing so. What kind of society are we, that our Elders feels this is their only option?

And so the freeze continued, with Life Stuff that could not be resolved easily. We just had to wait and be patient.

There was also the matter of renewing our licence. All boats on the waterways of Britain need a licence, renewable every year. The granting of the licence is dependant on a valid Boat Safety Certificate, renewable every four years. Guess when ours ran out? A couple of weeks before our licence was due to expire. Without going into tedious detail, it all got sorted out. We reported ourselves to the Canal and River Trust, before anyone else phoned the Licence Evasion Hotline (oh yes, there is On). One day I returned to the boat , and after stepping over a slumbering dog, banished to the towpath, I found my Beloved and a friendly bearded chap holding something that looked very like a large catheter bag over the sink. An onometer apparently. It told us we had no gas leaks and we could have our BSC. Despite the cast iron stove not being bolted to the floor (yes, really!), a large bit of wood screwed down over the air vent in the back door and the duct tape which we hastily peeled off the air vent in the front door. We got our licence a few weeks late, but we were not evicted from our boat for being skint and disorganised.
Gradually, more good things began to happen. We have a new boat cat, who is lively, funny and affectionate despite the bad things that have happened to her in the past. She loves boat life, is endlessly curious about many things, such as the engine bay, the weed hatch and the local boatyard where we go for water and pumpouts, none of which is she allowed to explore. She is an excellent swimmer...
The final breaking of the winter spell came in early July, a couple of days before our first anniversary of living on the boat. I was awoken at 3 am by something splashing in the water. In my sleep fuddled state I thought a deer might have fallen in and I didn't think I could get back to sleep with a drowning animal just a few feet away. So I got dressed and went out.  I don't know what I could have done if it had been a deer, but I felt compelled to go outside anyway. Only it wasn't a drowning deer, it was a pair of otters having a very successful nights fishing. We made tea and watched until dawn. Then when dawn came, we made more tea and watched some more. These were the first otters I had seen in the wild ever. I still cannot find adequate words to describe the beauty and magic of those few hours. Another boater said later that he had heard the splashing and wished he had come to watch too.
Although I would describe myself as druid, with an interest in the shamanic, I generally don't believe in wildlife as " psychic messengers" or wonder what it means to see a buzzard or a hare. Or even an otter. (I want to explore this more fully in a different post). But. After the otters, things changed. Became less frozen, more fluid. I am writing and blogging again, teaching myself to crochet and to play the dulcimer. I love my itinerant life afloat, and couldn't go back to land living.
yes, she does this on the water side too, thereby disproving the theory
...that tails are essential for balance!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Firewood and Fish

Boatie people generally derive happiness from simple things - like free wood. This morning a few large branches were "pruned" from an even larger Ash tree by a man with a chainsaw dangling on the end of a rope. The offcuts range in size from 2 inches in diameter to almost 2 feet, and have been left neatly stacked for folk to help themselves to, as is the custom along the canal. We had to go out for a few hours but by the time we returned there was still a fair bit left. Our appointment had been frustrating and not ended with the outcome we expected. We felt deflated and overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. After a mug of tea we went and joined the other hunter-gatherers at the woodpile. It was a lot of fun - lots of laughing and joking and people just taking what they needed. We made several new friends, one of whom  came by later with a  sack of smaller branches that we can saw up easily - she knew one of us has sciatica and that we don't have a log splitter for larger stuff. We do possess an axe which I asked my Dad to sharpen for us. It was returned with a little green hessian bag tied neatly to the blade, but wasn't much sharper...can't see me being able to chop much wood with it, bless him, which may have been his intention! Probably just as well. A complete set of digits is fairly vital to our work.
Other small kindnesses followed - including a text from a friend wishing us well today, and conversations with family. In turn we were able to find a way of letting someone know we were thinking of them. Earlier on this evening I heard a familiar plop! like a stone hitting water and I turned to see a kingfisher emerging from the cold green water with a fish.
The community here is fluid, tomorrow or the next day someone will pull up their mooring pins and move on. We may see them again in a few days, weeks or even months. Nevertheless it is a community  and I have experienced more friendship and generosity and practical help in eight months than I ever did in years of living in a city and its suburbs. We have tied up several boats that have come adrift, and others have done the same for us - no one shrugs and says "not my problem".
Over the last couple of weeks we have been on the receiving end of unneccessary blame and pettiness. But, like that kingfisher rising to the surface with a fish, it is the hospitality and many kindnessess that rise to the surface and sustain us.


Saturday, 2 February 2013

Spring, Swans and snowdrops

  A boatie friend of ours often says that happiness is in direct proportion to two things - the fullness of your water tank and the emptiness of the toilet tank. Yesterday our joy was made complete by the fitting of a new bilge pump - always good to know the boat isn't going sink.
As we made our way up to the marina I was struck by how much has changed in just a week. A week ago when we moved Netty, the last dirty, slushy piles of snow remained in places. We got to where we thought we wanted to be and then had to reverse half a mile, because of the large amount of dog turds which had accumulated ( why do dog owners think they are exempt from clearing up after their animals just because there is snow, rain, wind, it's too cold, too hot, they "forgot" to carry bags...they live in Bath and are just too posh to stoop to such things...this annoys me greatly, can you tell!), someone had spilled oil in the water and there were  dead things floating around including a cat which upset me more than the dog poo. It is not unusual to see the odd drowned rabbit or pigeon. The other day it was like moving through a bizarre game soup - a pheasant , an onion, a carrot , a leek and a field mushroom all marinading together. People throw their mouldering veg into the canal, presumably for the mallards who don't want to eat that last quarter of butternut squash you don't know what to do with either - because you've been eating it in soups and curry and stew all week and can't face any more. I see the ducks and moorhens circling round and grumbling "not another bloody butternut squash - can't wait for the holiday boats to come back with their stale white bread..ah, summer.."

  So anyway, back to yesterday. Imbolc. The first stirrings of spring. What energy and life almost overnight. Snowdrops flowering in the woods. Swans renewing and strengthening their partnerships. Turning our boat last night, we got caught in the middle of a swan squabble...Rose and Harold (our stalkers, see previous post) are muscling in on the territory of Alfred, a lone male. As we manoevered several tonnes  of steel against a strong breeze, Alfie ducked around the boat and used us as sort of barrage against the interlopers. All evening and into the night, we could hear the fwee fwee fwee of swans flying low over the water, back and forth.

  Last night the spring was carried in on the cries of a vixen calling for a mate, on the wit wit wit of a tawny owl and on the strong white wings of a swan.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

snow days!

I have been wanting to add some pictures here for a while and for once the camera battery was fully charged at the right time. That's the thing with our boat's 12 volt system - anything with a plug and needing charging with the inverter has to form an orderly queue. Generally the laptop and phone get in first. Yes, a solar panel would be a good thing, but my concern is that we would then be tempted to acquire more things with plugs which we probably don't need.
Just before the snow fell, a walker on the towpath glanced at our little boat, shivered and said he was very glad to have central heating. Inside, we are warm and cosy - our solid fuel stove throws out quite enough heat, too much sometimes, and then we have to  open the windows. And talking of energy, we can also change our gas supplier whenever we like. We got our last bottle from Will Coalboat, the time before that we went to a marina (don't tell Will!).
Like kids waiting for Santa, we were looking forward to the snow - our first snow on the boat! I was so disappointed at 3am on Friday when it still hadn't arrived. But by 7, the boats and the gound were covered and the snow was still falling. One of my favourite things about snow is the kind of silence that it brings. Less traffic, fewer people, but also a muffled quality. Like being wrapped in a blanket. Like being in a magical world. The road was hidden from view and as we looked up through the trees and saw a single street lamp still on. Like Narnia! We failed to find the wardrobe so we came home.
At dusk, I looked up from my work to see a bid of prey landing on the fence post opposite the window, a kestrel or a falcon, not sure which. The mallards who had been cruising up and down in the hope of bread went very quiet and drew up close to the side of the boat. The finches and the longtailed tits disappeared. We watched enchanted as the hunter took off and flew in large sweeping arcs, scanning every inch of the snow covered ground for prey. Then he moved on, and cautiously the ducks came out of hiding.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Strange fruit?

An item on Radio 4 today made me smile, about how to prepare and eat a persimmon. Apparently they are being hailed as a new superfood and the food expert being interviewed said that now is a good time to try them as they are "in season", yes, they are if you live in the Middle East or a Meditarannean country...and more "interesting" than apples. Nice bit of promotion of British fruit growers there, good one BBC!
I don't have anything against persimmons at all. Seeing them in supermarkets brings back good memories. I first ate them 20 years ago in Israel where I spent a few months doing voluntary work in a convent in Jersusalem. Maybe some things just taste better where they are grown. I did try an imported one a couple of years ago and it was much drier and had less flavour than I remembered. It was a more hopeful time then, with a peace process being negotiated. Hard to imagine now, seeing the escalating violence, that there too people go about their lives doing ordinary things, like eating fruit the colour of the sun.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The morning after

The waning moon grows paler
with the rising sun.
A grey boat, engine softly purring
pushes through the morning mist -
Happy New Year! Happy New Year!
they shout and wave from the roof
then they are gone
and the silence folds back on itself.

A dark crumpled thing
like charred paper
tumbles out of the willow,
becomes blackbird,
flies away.

Heron fishes at the edge
of a small oxbow lake
made by flood water,
while cormorant
is just passing

Kingfisher zigzags
canal and river,
river and canal.

Catkins teasing from the hazel
could be mistaken for spring
too soon, too soon.

This new day
this new year
and I am home.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Halcyon Days

   The original halcyon days, according to Greek myth were seven storm-free days around midwinter rather than any perfect summer's day. This was when Alcyone in the form of a kingfisher was able to nest on the beach in calm weather granted by the gods. It seems that the seven halcyon days were consecutive rather than sporadic as they are at the moment. Yesterday we took advantage of the break in the weather to walk a couple of miles up the towpath to collect our laundry. We stopped to watch a kingfisher expertly catching small silvery fish, flipping them in his beak and swallowing head first, so that their scales and fins lay flat. A family out for a sunday stroll stopped to see what we were looking at so intently. "Kingfisher!" we said, pointing across the canal. The kingfisher fluffed out his feathers and prepared for another dive, delighting his growing audience with another catch. A man rushed up with a camera, "what are we looking at ?" "Kingfisher!" we all replied in unison. The kingfisher spotted the camera and was off in a blurr of electric blue.

I remember a conversation I had with a poet friend, about how, given any kind of experience, poets usually have written a poem about it. She had a poem about not seeing otters. I had one about not seeing kingfishers. But that was a few years ago, and these days it is more usual to see one than not. Here, the canal and the river run parrallel to each other, and the kingfishers and herons inhabit and fish both. Now the trees are stripped bare, they are much easier to spot but each sighting still has an element of magic about it, a few precious moments of wonder. A special kingfisher moment happened a couple of months ago, I was sitting at the front of the boat, writing about kingfishers. I glanced up just as one landed on the prow, inches away. I held my breath as we regarded each other. It was just a few seconds, but long enough for me to take the full range of colours in this one small bird, the patterning of tiny black and white feathers around the head. And that eye! So big, dark and deep. I still don't know how to write about such encounters with wildlife, without sounding sentimental. All I can say for now is that such moments are real gifts and I hope my friend gets to write a poem about seeing otters, just as I can now write about seeing kingfishers.