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.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Today's gifts

First frost of the year. My Beloved brought me a frosted autumn leaf, "quick,look before it melts!". Some gifts last only seconds but are no less special for that.
Butterflies still, a Red Admiral and a Comma, wings outstretched and quivering to catch the last of the sun.
The pinks and oranges of a spindle tree against a blue sky.
Deer prints in the mud.
A kingfisher landing a few short feet away.
Finding new places to wander and wonder - an imaginatively planted woodland with cherry and spindle and sweet chestnut, willow and walnut, maple and oak.
The nearly full moon rising in a lavender sky in the east, the sun setting in a fiery western sky.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

4, 3, 2, 1...3

I have been watching swan family dynamics with interest over the last week or so. This particular pair had two nests washed out earlier in the year until they realised that the canal might be less prone to flooding than the nearby river. So on their third attempt they have succeeded in rearing four healthy and robust cygnets. To protect them from being attacked by their parents, their feathers remain grey until they are fully grown, the appearance of white feathers seeming to trigger an aggressive response and the cygnets are then chased away when they are ready to fend for themselves. However, the parents of "our" swan family seem divided in opinion as to whether the cygnets are ready to leave and continue with the next stage of their development into independant adults.
The cob has been steadily losing interest for quite some weeks now - he seems to need a lot of "me time" while the rest of the family are content to drift along nibbling reeds and harrassing boaters for bread. On Sunday we stopped and watched as the pen and all four cygnets stood at the top of the slipway, combing their feathers through and shaking out the loose ones until they stood on a soft downy white and grey carpet. We watched as they stretched out long, beautiful wings each with a full set of perfect flight feathers. Just a few weeks ago, their wings were short, stubby and downy. We realised we were standing quite close to these birds and no warning grunts or hisses were forthcoming - several of the cygnets being bigger than their mother and they looked more like her minders than her offspring.
Next day, Dad had returned but there were only three cygnets. I was very worried about the missing one, imagining all sorts of things that could have happened until I noticed how aggressive the cob was being towards the remaining cygnets, and how irritable they all were with each other. Their feathers are no longer solid grey and some white is beginning to show through.Then the three became two and two became one. Yesterday morning an adult swan and a mottled juvenile were hanging around near the boat. Suddenly the adult snorted and made off very swiftly, after a while the juvenile followed - much to the disgust of the parent bird. It occurred to me that we were perhaps supposed to feed the cygnet and cause a distraction so the parent could get away. Just after sunset the same day two adults and three cygnets came visiting. Having watched the behaviour of the adult birds over several days, it seems that Dad is busy driving the young away, while Mum is rounding them up and bringing them together again. It seems that she doesn't want to let go of them, just yet.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Gabrielle Roth, dancer, shaman, creator of 5 rhythms danced into stillness today.

I met her only once, a few years ago when she came to the UK for the last time and ran a weekend of Slow Dancing with Chaos. But I came across her books about 15 years ago and was lucky to be living in Bristol with easy access to 5Rhythms teachers.  I had a flirtation with yoga for a while, but it didn't suit me or my body and seemed to create more rigidity than flexibility. Then I gradually found the courage to dance! I've never been someone who fits easily into a group, but on the whole I have found more encouragement, acceptance and love among other dancers than in many other places.

I gave away all three of her books when I moved onto the boat, and I wonder now if I should have kept them...but I have read all the words over and over. Now is the time to dance and find my own words.Through dancing I found the poet and storyteller within myself, and for that I am grateful to Gabrielle, the teacher of my teachers. If she hadn't listened, hadn't accepted her gifts and offered them to the world I and many others would be in a different much poorer place, mentally, physically and spiritually.

Sometime soon I will find a way to dance in her honour in a space 50 feet by 6 foot 10.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Each day, something new

This may sound fanciful but it seems narrowboat Netty has her own ideas about where to go and where to moor up. Two days ago we planned to return to a particular place which we had enjoyed in the summer, with wide grass verges. It would have been good for our little cat since the cyclepath veers away from the edge of the canal keeping the dog walkers and bikes at a distance. There are trees and owls and it is quiet. But no. Netty refused to get her nose anywhere the bank and complained it was far too shallow and muddy for her, even though the water levels are much higher than they were during our last visit.
  So we continued, and found a different spot. We have been down among woods for a few weeks and now we have emerged into more open countryside. As we were mooring up, geese flew overhead calling to each other, a sound that pulls at my heart in ways I cannot explain. The swallows are leaving, taking the summer with them, and canada geese are bringing in the winter. The crows gather in the stubble fields and willow leaves drop like feathers into the water. Two  russet foxes hunt in the fields at the water's edge. Too much time in the woods saps the light, saps my energy. Here it is open and bright, there is colour everywhere and even as the three inches of rain promised by the weather forecasters begins to fall, I feel awake and alert and alive.

Monday, 1 October 2012


We are being stalked and it's all our own fault. It began innocently enough, the admiring glances and a few kind words. The breakfast meetings were probably a step too far. I see it now. It didn't stop there, soon they were banging on the side of the boat at lunchtime and suppertime too. I thought that if I gave them what they wanted they would go away, but no, they lingered silently in the darkness not accepting that no means no. After a week or so we moved a few miles down the canal. They followed us at a distance until the first swing bridge and then they were gone. We missed them despite everything and our uneaten crusts went to the ducks.
Then, the evening before last I was standing on the stern listening for owls when I heard a familiar sound. "Ship ship" they said. "Ship ship". They knew we had been to a farmers market and had fresh bread. They sounded like the mute swans we had left behind some days previously, but I did the lettuce test just to be sure. According to the website of a swan rescue centre, they can be fed bread and green leafy things like lettuce or spinach. They need to drink with their food so it is best thrown into the water. I threw some lettuce out to them, and sure enough, Mr Swan nibbled half heartedly while Mrs Swan swam in supicious circles around the floating leaves.  I went and got some of the good stuff.
I am not alone in being fascinated by these birds, they have been at the centre of myths and stories for centuries. They have a reputation for agression, and according to a present-day myth can break a man's arm with a single flap of a wing. I'm sure this might be possible...if the swan has been trained in unarmed combat by the SAS. In truth they are far more vulnerable than dangerous,  being at risk from discarded fishing tackle and power lines.
I want to write more about the birds that live on and around the water here, but for now, it is getting late and if I turn out the lights and keep away from the windows then I might just get to the other end of the boat without being seen...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

"I couldn't live like you..."

Gongoozler is a word invented by writer Terry Darlington to describe a very particular group of people. They are the ones who hang around locks, filming unwary boaters on their phones in the hope of an impending disaster which they can then download onto YouTube. My initiation into their twilight world came as a result of our engine breaking down and having to get our boat towed down the Caen Hill flight. Learning to drive two boats breasted together when one has no engine therefore no steerage is not how I would have chosen to do it, but sometimes the best way to do something that scares you is  by getting on with it through necessity. Apparently I nearly squashed a swan against a lock gate, but I wasn't told that til several days later. Just as well, because I would probably have refused to touch the tiller ever again. But that is another story for another time.
  Back to the gongoozlers. There are some for whom a camera or camcorder record is not enough. Halfway down the flight, we stopped briefly for a break and we were approached by a small group of tourists who wanted to see inside one of the boats. Seriously? I don't remember anyone knocking on my door, curious to see the inside of my ex-authority flat on the outskirts of Bristol. If they had, they would have got short shrift and sent on their way. But things are different here, and we agreed to let them see inside one of the boats. When they emerged they were frankly quite rude. Unintentionally, but rude, nonetheless. They thought the boats were just like caravans and they couldn't live like that. Thing is, I can't live like they do either. We, my partner and I , live like this for a reason. We were becoming increasingly disturbed by the greed for space and natural resources we saw around us. We now live in a space 50 feet by 6'10", it is our home and our workshop. It is probably smaller that the kitchens desired by people who go on TV programmes about moving to the country. We have to be responsible in our use of water, since we carry it with us and when the tank runs low we have to think about how and where to refill. We have no appliances, and cooking is on a three ring gas burner. No TV, no fridge, no power shower, microwave, dishwasher, washing machine. We are still very new to this life and it is at times physically hard and we've not had a winter on our boat yet, but so far we are happy with our decision. This really is living mindfully, and our personal response to increasing environmental damage.

Monday, 27 August 2012

exploding moorhen...?

This title came about because I couldn't think of a title - so I pulled out a book at random. Now that is not as easy to do as you might think. Having moved from a flat to a narrowboat, my library is a fraction of what it was. All the books I thought I could live without are to be found in various charity shops between Bristol and Devizes. The book that came to hand was, appropriately, Roger Deakin's Waterlog and I just happened to open it on a page containing the words "moorhen"  and "exploded". I liked the idea of the exploding moorhen, a sound I have become familiar with in the last few months. Quiet, nervous birds, if surprised they let out volley of sound.
  The transition from land to water has not been a smooth one - engine failure after the first week meant that our plans for the summer did not work out in the way  I imagined. I thought  I would be writing flowing, lyrical poetry inspired by dragonflies and kingfishers as we drove our green boat through the green, whispering reeds. And yes, there has been a little of that. But mostly I have been watching and learning from the less colourful, more mundane. Like the moorhen. I have grown to love these birds for their persistance and diligence. They can raise up to three broods of chicks a year and I have watched a lone moorhen spend hours tugging at reeds she needs to repair a nest. They are tough plants and don't yield easily to a small bird. I say "she" but it could equally well have been a "he", since moorhen couples share the chick-rearing. The first few chicks to hatch are cared for by one parent, while the rest are cared for by the other.
  And then there were the rats. Now these are creatures that I have considered to be pestilential abberations of nature in the past. But having spent time watching the ones behind Wadworth's I have come to admire their ability to adapt to their environment, their versatility. Essential qualities for this new life that I have begun. They are excellent and graceful swimmers and agile enough to run along a bramble stem, barely moving a leaf. I found myself looking out for them each day, feeling disappointed if they did not appear.
  I may not have had the summer I envisaged, but instead I have experienced something more real and lively, finding in myself qualities I didn't know I had.