LAPWINGS AND TIGERMOTHS

LAPWINGS AND TIGERMOTHS

Here in the duneland, no rain for a month. Every day now, soon after dawn, the sun’s heat is hurried to a pitiless blaze and the sand burns the air to golden dust. Dragonflies thrive. They materialise beside us like digital updates from paradise, messages alerting us, alerting us –  then gone.

In the dune-slack, an impassable marsh in winter, now dry and clinker brittle, the water-mint, toughened by thirst, crunches under our scuffing boots and releases its medicinal vapours; an aroma so volatile it smears itself on our scorched skins.

It clarifies the senses, sweeps the mind clean, and more importantly, conceals the taste of us from the marauding horseflies. “It’s like magic,” I declare, striding ahead, an excitable guide. I’d promised you magic today, after all, on our walk in the dunes, and here it is, all around us, and I am proud.

Yes, magic, the swaying grey viperweed, its hypnotic flowers of indigo and Aegean blue. Everywhere the devil’s-bit and the lady’s bedstraw. In the old names, a history it’s tempting to trust. Fireweed and knapweed, loosestrife and toadflax. The ragwort’s audacious glow is loaded with busy cinnabar moths, soldier beetles, mining bees.

We’re in the otherworld now, because look, here’s a dune orchid, lilac-tongued like the moon. A dragonfly appears again, and we’re face to face with a hovering alphabet, a living hieroglyphic.

This is the spot where fifty years ago a boy found an old flintlock pistol, carefully concealed, treasure, perfectly preserved. He took it to school to show it off, and the headmaster confiscated it and that was that. But still…keep your eyes peeled.

And here come the crested lapwings, a bandit squadron in broken formation swooping towards us, uttering their weird challenge, dive-bombers engaging the intruders. It’s a display intended to distract us and unsettle us and keep us moving. Gorgeous birds who laughed at Christ’s crucifixion.

In the old English spell books that I like to read, you will often come across ‘experiments’ that require a lapwing. To fetch one of the rebel angels out of the fabric of the fallen world, you must first kill a lapwing, we’re told. Then you must make an ink of its blood, and write the angel’s name on the skin of an unborn hound.

It’s said that a female lapwing will feign injury to draw egg-hunters away from her nest, offering herself as a seemingly easy meal. Perhaps it’s this deceitful behaviour that first recommended her blood to magicians. It might fool foxes, but humans have plundered lapwing nests for centuries.

In Victorian times the eggs were massively over-harvested, sold for nothing in London, and lapwing numbers plummeted. The once extensive flocks dwindled to straggling remnants. They’ve continued to decline in our own time.

It’s become impossible to engage with the natural world, the bright world outside the window, without reckoning such losses, without touching the wounds and breaking every spell. We know we will find absences and fading memories. It can sometimes seem as if we’re living in our own elegies.

Tiger Moth

A tiger moth appeared on my arm last week as I read a rare transcript of “An Excellent Booke of The Arte of Magicke” by Humphrey Gilbert and John Davys, Queen Elizabeth’s master navigator. The moth’s extravagant beauty was astonishing even though the insect was ragged and tired. The underwing colour as rich as Sicilian blood oranges.

Researching it later, I discovered that the tiger moth’s numbers have declined by 89% in my own lifetime. They’ve almost disappeared. How could that have happened? In 30 years. Where have they all gone?

I felt as if I had reached to stroke the softness of its fur but broken off the wings instead. Something profound and fundamental is wrong. Are we abandoning the world? Maybe that’s it. Maybe we’re running fast away from the evidence of our own lives.

 

 

 

“Where he that knows will like a lapwing fly, farre from the nest, and so himself belie.” And here is bittersweet, I say, innocent and treacherous, the country cousin of belladonna, her rambling vine weighed down with purple berries.

And here, my love, is legendary meadowsweet, smirking to herself in the mirror, applying the greasepaint, writing your name, licking the pollen from her fingertips and tasting the white soot of an owl’s wings.

The Laughter of Foxes

I wake to the shrieking of foxes. At first, I can’t place the sound –  still half-asleep, it seems like a scrap of dream has escaped into the attic or the walls, whistling and itching and coughing – but I wake, and yes, it’s the foxes in the garden, back again as they have been the last few nights. I lean across the bed, gently nudge the creaking window open onto the frosty air, and eavesdrop on their behaviour.

Usually, the nights are quiet here in this house among the dunes. Sometimes you can hear the sea, sometimes the motorway. But now breeding season has begun for the foxes, and the turmoil of it echoes through the dark. The vixens are fertile for just a few nights, after midwinter. Last year’s cubs are driven out to fend for themselves and they disperse clumsily through the country seeking new territory. You’ll see them in the mornings in the lanes, looking lost.

The older animals roam with a more certain purpose. Foxes everywhere are suddenly on the move. It’s when they meet that they utter their strange cries -- bark or howl or scream, it sounds eerily human, and always unsettling and surprising the first time you hear it. Listening at the window, my imagination conjures images of devils, half-formed shadowy creatures, marginal scribbles in bestiaries crying and cavorting out there beyond the lamp-glow.

Foxes and devils are old companions of course. I think of Huw Llwyd, and his poem, his cywydd, “Cyngor y Llwynog”, “Fox Council”. Huw was from the north, from Merioneth, (hence llwynog instead of the southern cadno for fox) and his richly adventurous life has passed into legend.

A magician in the Elizabethan manner, a contemporary of John Dee and Shakespeare, Huw believed he understood the influence of the stars and the planets on the events of earth; how everything is chained to everything else. In common with other magicians of his time, he would call and bind and interrogate the elemental devils using techniques gleaned from banned books. He knew how to make events shift in his favour – he was a healer, a finder, a dreamer, a man able to control his own luck. He was also, it follows, a very fine poet. “Cyngor y Llwynog” is an invocation of a fox spirit:

Good morning, fox of the cave,

Every tame fowl’s arch foe-man,

Your ripple I recognize,

Welcome to fertile country…

 

How can we prosper, he asks the fox, how can we achieve success in a wicked world? The invocation has the desired effect. The fox answers, “Seeking success, preferment? / I’d wish you to live… like me.” As the poem continues however, it begins to seem that not a fox, but a devil has answered the summons. The advice it offers invites indulgence in a life of wild greed, cruelty and deceit. “Integrity today, in the world’s view, is foolish.”

The price to pay for success isn’t mentioned, but it is implied. We never learn whether Huw accepted and made a deal. But we do know that he is remembered as a foxhunting cunning man, yn dyn hysbys, and that a rock in the torrent of the Cynfal river is known as Huw Llwyd’s pulpit, where he preached the gospel to his people by day, and by night argued and bartered with the devils of the air.

So the story goes. We no longer interrogate devils. We just hand them the reins and let them get on with it. We no longer read those banned books that fascinated old Huw Llwyd, but still we all make a deal, magically witless as we are, we all come to terms. I switch off the bedside lamp, and leaving the window open, listen for the last of the fox cries.

It’s almost comforting to hear them, year after year, their brief revelry shattering the stillness of the winter nights, their shrieking a language far older than our own. It occurs to me then, as I drift back to sleep, that they’re not shrieking, those fugitive foxes, but laughing. Laughing and exulting in life, dancing their weird annual ritual on the lawns of the world, a carnival, for just a few nights, before dissolving into the shadows of the hedgerows and the dunes, slowly slipping away, gone again, leaving a trail of silence in the dew under the sapphire glow of Venus, the morning star.

 

 

Note: Translations from Huw Llwyd’s Welsh from ‘Medieval Welsh Lyrics’ by Joseph Clancy. 

 

In the Rock Pool

Those are corals that were his eyes.

No, that’s not right.

Those are pearls that were his eyes. 

Yes that’s it. Full fathom five thy father lies.

 

I’m staring into a rock pool, at Pink Bay, just outside Porthcawl. Called “pink” because some of the rocks, especially when wet, blush like wild roses. It’s an extraordinary place – look closely at the stone and you see a glittering spectrum of ruby and fuschia, burgundy and garnet, cinnabar and quartz and opal and topaz. On some days the rocks can seem dull and uninteresting. On others they blaze into life and demand attention.

But anyway, what’s in the rock pool? In this light of morning mist and drizzle I can’t see anything except my own reflection - always fatter and older than I imagine – and also there, peering over my shoulder, a pale sun, floating like a silver coin on the shivering meniscus. 

I’ve been thinking about the old Greek tale of Echo and Narcissus. You probably know it. A beautiful boy catches sight of his reflection in a pool and falls in love. Entranced, he fails to recognise that it is himself he has seen. At the same time, the nymph of the pool, the presiding spirit, Echo, who has no voice of her own but can only mimic the voices of others, falls head over heels in love there and then with Narcissus. But when she approaches him, trembling, naked, unable to resist her desire, arms outstretched for a kiss, he recoils in horror. As the poet Ted Hughes puts it:

 ‘No’ he cried, ‘no, I would sooner be dead

 Than let you touch me.’ Echo collapsed in sobs:

 ‘Touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me.’

 (Tales from Ovid)

 

So Narcissus, crazily obsessed with his own self-image, unable to recognise himself, in fact confusing self with self-image, misses his chance at life, and is doomed. Unable to embrace Echo, he pines away at the pool side for the image in the water and eventually, trying to kiss himself, topples into the mirror and is drowned.

And yes, surely, here is a myth for our times. It’s often remarked that ours is an “age of Narcissism.” And I find it difficult to disagree. After all, we live in a culture that increasingly glorifies and rewards the superficial, and shuns or mocks anybody who tries to take things serious, even if only for a moment. We gaze into the mirror – and what is social media if it is not a mirror? – and we are encouraged to think and talk about ourselves more and more. I, I, I. No longer citizens, we are consumers; it’s our economic duty. Meanwhile, beyond the horizon that we steadfastly ignore, smoke is rising. Staring at our phones, we try not to notice. We pass on by, checking our messages – or pretending to. The children of Gaza, and Ukraine, and Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, the millions of sweatshop workers, climate change, that unsteady glacier, the soul crushing poverty right on our own doorsteps – we haven’t got time for all that stuff. Because time is money, isn’t it? And time is running out.

And so what? There’s nothing else to do. Scan the news headlines, move on to the gossip and sport sections. We don’t act, we are enacted. We don’t create, we take. And maybe that’s fine. But how we see the world affects who we think we are. And choices have consequences. There’s an alchemy of perception constantly at work in a world of mass marketing, targeted and personally tailored advertising, and 24 hour rolling media and we are on the receiving end. We’re surrounded and there’s no way out, so click the next link and surf the wave and update your status. If you can.

But suddenly the cloud breaks and the sun burns gold in the sky and I can see beyond the surface of the pool and yes, there is something stirring there in the shadows. The pool of course is full of life. And this is the inter tidal zone so we must be quick – it’s a brief world, this rock pool, and will be changed forever tonight. And changed again, every night to come. So I reach into the water and cup some of it in my hand as the shrimps scatter. How much invisible life do I now hold? My boy wanders over with his fishing net. ‘What can you see?’ I ask him, as he steps cautiously, gently, like a hunter into the cold pool. ‘Hush, dad,’ he whispers. ‘Hush.’

Once I caught a lobster in a rock pool, on the town beach in Porthcawl, right in front of the strollers on the promenade, the drinkers and tourists in the sea front cafes and bars. I’d never even seen a wild lobster before until that moment. A bulge in a pool as the tide retreated and I caught it with a child’s net and lifted it, a creature of liquid clockwork, a cranky crustacean with claws to snip your fingers off, the greasy bubbles dribbling from its millstone mouth, a thing of emerald blue and ocean rust. We admired it for a moment but released it quickly into the sea as some of the nearby fishermen, like prowling hounds, began to take a boisterous interest.

So I sit back, as the drizzle disappears and a wave of midsummer heat washes over us and the rocks release their savage rainbows. I watch my son delving into the rock pool. He’s looking for lobsters, of course. That first glimpse years ago has stayed with him, as it has stayed with me. We haven’t found another one yet, but we know they are out there, and we keep looking. And suddenly I’m reminded of the mad French poet and mystic Gerard De Nerval, who, obsessed with the tarot cards, walked a pet lobster on a silk ribbon through the parklands of Paris.

‘Oh Monsieur De Nerval,’ I wonder, as my son shouts with delight and hauls a heavy net, ‘why do you keep a lobster in your company and invite the mockery of the masses?’

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he answers, looking up from the milky green swirl of his glass of absinthe,

‘Lobsters don’t bark…’

‘… and they have encountered the mysteries of the sea.’