Midsummer Musings

It’s been two weeks since the druids packed away their cloaks and stopped touching each other’s bottoms at Stonehenge, and the race downhill into the dark months has begun. It must seem like a strange thought process for any normal people reading this, but it’s one of the things that marks me out as being one of the mad folk. That and my bright orange scrotum.

I’m hyper-aware of time. I’ve written about it before and won’t bore you with the retelling, but I have two main trains of thought on the subject. Firstly, I obsess over the death of time and the passage of life into memory, and secondly I’m guilty of counting down the days until the veil of bleakness descends for another year. Cheerful eh? It’s not quite as grim as it sounds. I’ve recently made peace with my fears, but I’ve not quite managed to train my fecund mind to stop predicting catastrophe whenever the nights begin to draw in. Today is a great example of this; we’re currently experiencing an epic heatwave and I’ve spend the best part of the afternoon trying to work out whether I can hibernate between October and March. So far the planning hasn’t been hugely successful; I’m pinning my hopes on an injection of bear genes, however my pessimistic brain tells me that I’d probably be the subject of a terrible mixup and end up getting the skunk jab instead. They don’t even bloody hibernate.

I’ve had two awful winters and two average winters since I was diagnosed as an official mental. The awful ones are those where I descend into full on depression, where my brain switches to kamikaze autopilot and I float outside of myself like a grey balloon. In the average winters I retain control of my mental faculties and generally function well – I can get out of bed, dress myself, go to work etc. “But Tom, you handsome bugger, surely that’s a good winter?” I hear you ask. You’re right to ask; any time spent in control of one’s mind can only be a good thing, but it’s more complex than that. I can function, but I’m diminished. The best way to explain it is with a tedious car analogy – I’m like a modern car but my engine management light comes on and my engine switches to ‘limp home’ mode. Eco setting. Low battery. Clogged filter. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a thousand times better than the alternative.

Maybe some of you reading this can recognise your own experiences in mine. Maybe your experiences are different but equally unhelpful. Either way, it’s clear that this tendency towards unhelpful thought processes holds us back, maybe even damages us. So what to do about it? I don’t have all the answers, but I want to share some things that have been helpful for me:

a. Train your mind to take joy in the small things. We’re forever bombarded by the big stuff and it takes a toll on us, but there’s much happiness to be found in the minutiae. When it all seems too much, narrow your world view and really focus on something. Ask yourself questions and try to work out the answer. I immerse myself in nature because I can find a million things to ponder, but you don’t need to go the full David Attenborough like me. Look around you. Take an interest in patterns. Try to figure out how things work. Dogs are weird aren’t they? What the fuck is electricity? Where do ducks come from, and what do they want from us? Is there a squidgier food than malt loaf?

b. Try to live in the moment, and don’t take the amazing things that you do every day for granted. This is a tough one as it’s often very hard to control how you feel, but it’s rewarding if you can. For example, yesterday I went to London to watch a magnificent set by one of my favourite ever bands. Yet I began today by stressing about distant winter instead of reflecting on a wonderful experience. We are constantly making incredible memories but are too often guilty of letting them go, like a balloon release that ends up choking a swan.

c. No matter what, never be afraid to talk. Talk constantly, talk loudly. Write things down and share them with the world. Let the people around you know who you are, let them see your humanity. Your brain might tell you to keep everything inside, but it’s truly never the answer. Those internal musings are often much easier to see as the lies that they are in the cold light of day, whereas they’re infinitely more convincing when you hold them in. Unpack the unhelpful thoughts from your mind, and make room to let the beauty in. Don’t be scared, and don’t be disheartened. Tell your story.

I’m still getting to know myself, but every day I learn new tactics that help me to better understand who I am. I’m a strange aubergine, but I’m learning to like me.

The Glamour of Decay

I stand in the shadow of the old power station,
An iron monolith, unravelled by time and neglect,
Hulking rust, flaking lead paint,
A coastal breeze makes the ferrous corpse howl,
The clangs and screams of a building gone feral.

Twenty years have passed since they last shut the gates,
Twenty years since mankind last asserted control,
Nature now thrives, unshackled and wild,
An erratic caretaker with a cubist’s eye,
Order erased and replaced by chaos.

Birds claim dominion over this mangled fortress,
Each corner of the inglorious ruin an avian metropolis,
Pigeons ubiquitous, gulls rampant,
Cacophonous flocks flooding the sky,
A clumsy murmuration of the unloved ones.

Dragonflies dance above the glaucous saltmarsh,
An old wooden jetty sways with the tidal ebb,
River barges were once unloaded here,
Yet now the hardwood timbers are left to rot,
Watched over by the ghosts of the wharfmen.

Few structures persist in this forgotten place,
Yet relics of the service yards and car parks remain,
Cracked and fissured, asphalt ruptured,
Colt’s-foot, horsetail and beard grass encroaching,
The ephemeral vanguard of a pioneer invasion.

A green-fingered crew once cared for these grounds,
Grasslands mown and manicured with pride,
Their box-cut hedges are now long gone,
Lost to leggy avenues of glorious disorder,
Verges transformed to a paradise of wildflowers and anthills.

Rusted and warped, a railway track leads north,
Through unkempt scrublands where the nightingales dwell,
Past dusty fuel ash sidings,
Fiercely alkaline, slate-grey and barren,
Dotted with bright orchids and hardy halophytes.

I rest at the gates of a tumbledown outhouse,
The broken sign still reads “nature education centre”,
Even a celebrity endorsement,
Couldn’t prevent this place from being forgotten,
When the numbers in the balance sheets stopped adding up.

I walk slowly back to the tarnished metal gates,
Through grasslands teeming with a rainbow of insect life,
A basking lizard darts away,
Her gravid body catches my eye as I squeeze past the chainlink fence,
Through a gap the local kids made years before.

As I slink away a sheet of paper catches my eye,
Stapled to a telegraph pole at the roadside,
“Planning permission granted”,
The machines are coming to undo twenty years of natural process,
Shiny new homes to replace a brownfield monstrosity.

It’ll all be gone soon, my secret place,
They don’t value this stuff, but it’s richer than any wild place I’ve ever known,
They’re wrong.
They’re wrong.
They’re wrong.

Nordic Notions

Wanna hear a secret? For over a decade I’ve been having a secret romantic tryst. Shocking, I know. You’re probably appalled at me, but you needn’t be. My love affair isn’t with a person, but with a place. Scandinavia, Fennoscandia, call it what you will. This beautiful, strange little peninsula has changed and enriched my life beyond measure. This place is a part of me. It’s in my blood.

I’m in Sweden as I write this, ensconced in a small hotel in suburban Gothenburg. It’s 10pm, and the sky above me is beginning to fade to a deep indigo. Time moves slowly here, and the light is different. There’s a tendency to think of this part of the world as a cold, unforgiving place, and for half of the year that’s certainly true, but spring and summer at this latitude are joyous. It’s early June as I write, a time of endless days and the briefest of nights. A time of cloudless skies of the richest blue imaginable, a blue rendered in stereo by the seas, rivers and lakes that permeate this place. A cerulean plexus, serene and perfect.

A slash of green divides the blue, a jagged horizon that reminds me that this is a place of trees and forests where man is but an interloper. It’s been written that the human eye can detect more shades of green that any other colour, and sometimes it seems like this place has them all. Green is my colour. I derive a huge feeling of calm from being enveloped by it, from the deep, dark greens of the pine canopies to the soft, sun-dappled shades of the parkland broadleaves. As a functioning depressive it’s one of my great releases and a well of succour that I will always return to.

I felt a special connection with this region from the moment I first visited. I came here from a world that I always found, and still find, claustrophobic, a world of relentless cerebral overstimulation that comes from urban living, work pressure and family drama/tragedy. My standard response has always been to retreat and hide away like a modern day anchorite, venturing out sporadically to remind people that I’m not dead yet. I feel different here though, calmer and more confident. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about the wide streets and empty open spaces that nourishes me, both physically and mentally. I imagine it’s the difference between a caged tiger and one living freely. This is my natural habitat, my niche gestalt.

It sounds as though I’m unhappy with regular life, but that’s not the case. By any measure I have a very privileged existence, living in a place I love and doing a job that I enjoy. I’ve learned to accept the things that used to stop me from being happy and to live my life in a way that works for me. My frequent retreats to the northern latitudes are part of my self-prescribed therapy, and part of my attempt to live my best life. Maybe I’ve got some Viking blood in me – it would certainly explain the daft ginger beard.

I’ll draw this to a close now as my eyelids are growing heavy. It’s 11.45pm, and the sky is still a rich navy hue. The sound of trams rattling along outside reverberates in my ears as the gentle hum of the city at night lulls me to sleep.

Try to find your natural habitat. It’ll save your life x

Nature Rap

I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.
My flow is pretty weak but my words are effective.
I don’t have a badge.
I don’t have a gun.
But my bat detector is set to stun.

I’m a naturalist, not a naturist.
I keep my trousers on when I’m looking at tits.
The great and the blue.
The crested and coal.
All my homies need is a nesting hole.

Trails in the grass and tracks in the dirt.
I crawled through the brambles, tore a hole in my shirt.
Trapped on barbed wire.
Fox shit on my shoes.
It’s started to rain, I’ve got the badger sett blues.

A skylark in a country park.
A scratch mark on some tree bark.
Sunrise on the equinox.
Making friends with a city fox.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

I’m a nature lover, not a nature fighter.
Don’t be jealous of my A3 weatherwriter.
Don’t envy my hand lens.
Don’t diss my chest waders.
Save your rage for knotweed and the alien invaders.

I travel around in an old Citroen van.
Full of bottle traps and my beat up trailcam.
The idols I worship,
Are Rose and Rackham.
I was raised on Attenborough and schooled by Packham.

Winter hits and I’m trapped in the office.
Dreaming of hedgerows and the hazel coppice.
I’ve still got the fieldfare.
I’ve still got the redwing.
But I’m counting down the days until I hear the first cuckoo sing.

A bullhead on a riverbed.
A barn owl in a farm shed.
Barbastelle in a woodland dell.
A brown smear and a strange smell.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

I hang around at night in weird locations.
I swear I’m not a pervert, it’s my eco-occupation.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

Renewal

Spring changes everything.

The viscous fog that held me bound is melting away. I’ll soon be free, born again into the realm of the May Queen. She walks the wild places, making everything new. Untold shades of green are a canvass for wildflowers of every hue, each a rare gemstone shining light into the dark corners. The spring flowers are the pioneers, harbingers of impending summer.

The air is different. The thin, biting wind of winter has been replaced by something new, a zephyr dense with pollen and scent, imbued with warmth. Close your eyes, let your other senses assume control. Breath it in. Taste it. Stand still and listen to the sound the spring breeze carries to your discerning ear. Birdsong. Nature’s great chorus, performing cantatas of endless variety for you alone.

Foremost among the May Queen’s haunts are the woodlands. I know she’s been as soon as I skip over the shallow brook and step past the hazel threshold. I’m not religious, but at times the divide between nature and faith seems paper-thin. The woodland in spring is my place of worship, my cathedral. The mighty boles of ash and oak are its great stone pillars, the crown-shy canopy its vaulted ceiling. Each glade is a quiet chapel, and each shaft of sunlight permeating that leafy ceiling shapes a dappled glow more beautiful than any stained glass lancet. The fallen log is my pew, a place for quiet reflection. I consider the elegant mosaic that stretches before me. Bluebell, anemone and archangel, a carpet woven by the seraphim.

The winter malaise is banished for another year. I step out of the woods renewed, more alert than ever to the world around me. I am part of nature, and it is part of me.

Spring changes everything. Blue skies bring joy.

Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Echoes

Excerpt from the diary of George Fisher, latterly of St John’s Asylum:

7th April 1971. Fosse Manor.

I write this in the hope that, someday, someone might understand…

Kitty and Dr Pullman have been whispering again. Heads together, voices low, all furrowed brows and concerned glances. They think I’m going mad. They bother and fuss, convinced that that age and the vestiges of shellshock have finally taken their toll. I’m not mad, dear reader, I promise you that.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. I thought they might believe me. I thought they might understand. Part of me even hoped that Kitty, my darling sister, might have the gift too. It seems not, and since that evening things have been altogether different. Gin-fuelled and garrulous, I laid bare my secret, and now I am undone.

What is my secret? What did I utter, so that all that hear it think me quite mad? The truth, dear reader, just the truth. I see things. I hear things. Things that once existed but are no longer there. Things that sensible folk claim never existed. They’ve always been there, always spoken to me. You probably think I’m mad as well, don’t you?

I tried my damnedest to make Kitty understand, but I just left her ashen-faced and frightened. She insisted that Dr Pullman be sent for at once, certain I had been struck down by a sickness of the mind. Albert Pullman, a friend and confident of some 50 years, the family physician. He didn’t believe me either, and so the seeds for this sorry tale of my mental decline were sown. I wish they could see through my eyes. I wish I could make them understand.

I fear my time as a free, independent man grows short. I hear them talk of removing me from the family home and committing me to the care of the asylum, St John’s Home for the Feeble Minded. I have passed that god-forsaken place countless times, and each time thanked the lord for my freedom. Now, it seems, I am destined to view those rusted iron gates from within. I wish with every fibre of my being that it was not so.

I’ve had these experiences, these visions, since I was a child. The world around me has always spoken, yet it was only in adulthood that that I learned that my talent was special. I had always assumed that it was normal, and had been saddened to learn that others saw but half of the world that I experience. I’m different, but I don’t know why.

The manor grounds have been my home since childhood, and are alive with colour and sound. The hedgerows astride the long drive teem with the chatter of birds and wood sprites, each distinct voice as clear to me as that of my own dear Kitty. I know their names and their stories, and can recognise their distinct accents. Friend yellowhammer conversing with a hazel elf about the weather, wood mouse and tree sparrow discussing the farmer’s new hat. This is my world. Always has been.

Southwest of the manor, beyond the old ice house where the roe deer gather, is a dismantled railway line. I frequently take long walks into the fading light of evening, and the old railway line is a favoured haunt. It’s also the place where some of the most powerful visions occur. Perhaps visions is the wrong term. They’re not visions so much as living echoes, a past world viewed through a film of silver gossamer. As I walk beside the old railway I smell coal smoke, and hear the soft chunter of the small narrow-gauge puffer that once served this line. No trains have run here since 1882, and yet I see them clear as day. I tip my cap to Bill, the sooty fireman, and wave heartily at three carriages of cheery passengers as they pass. The echo fades as the engine steams out of sight, but I know that I’ll be seeing old Bill again soon enough.

Past the old railway are the ancient oakwoods, where the green man lives. I have spend many happy hours in his company, smoking my pipe and listening to his tales of times past when the trees were new. Crowds of woodland creatures would gather at his feet to listen, enchanted. I learned much of the world from hearing the green man speak. I will miss him. Happy times indeed.

These are but three of a great many experiences, however I must stop here. A black sedan is creeping slowly up the long drive, and Dr Pullman is walking to meet it. Kitty is weeping, trying and failing to cover her face so that I don’t see. I fear my time here is done, but will try to write more soon.

I am not mad. Remember me well.

Disco Badgers

I’ve seen some things you won’t believe,
Whilst jogging in the park.
I once saw a duck eat a chocolate eclair,
But the strangest things come after dark.

Last year I saw two postmen,
Who appeared to be in distress.
The first’s trousers had fallen down,
And the second seemed quite out of breath.

But the oddest thing I ever saw,
And I swear I wasn’t drunk,
Were disco-dancing badgers,
Taken over by the funk.

They’d built a dancefloor in the woods,
Just outside their sett.
One had silver hotpants on,
And a Chaka Khan cassette.

I just couldn’t believe my eyes,
I stood there quite askance.
They used a pine cone for a glitterball,
And boy, those guys could dance.

If you’ve never seen a badger strut,
And shimmy on the floor,
Think of Travolta in a stripy suit,
Crawling around on all fours.

I’ve looked in all the textbooks,
I’ve spoken to the nerds.
But all I get are funny looks,
And i’m told that it’s absurd.

But I know what I saw that night,
Don’t patronise me please.
Glamour, sequins and funky moves,
From the Badgery Bee Gees.

I rushed back there the very next day,
To see what I could find.
But all I saw was a plain old sett,
And no sign of bump, nor grind.

I felt a bit downhearted,
A sadness in my soul.
Until I saw, whilst walking away,
A silver flash from a rabbit hole.

It feels strange to tell you this,
I’ve kept it to myself.
But a pair of hotpants (badger sized),
Are sitting on my shelf.

The government will tell you,
That the badgers are no good.
But that’s a lie, I know the truth,
They’re the dancing queens of the wood.

Lay Us Down

Winter mist hangs in the air,
As we sit and plan our great escape.
Down from the village by the secret path,
To where the wooded valley waits.

Hand in hand we skirt the barley,
We climb the fences and the dry stone walls.
Beech and ash reach out to meet us.
As we enter the wood where the ring dove calls.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

We’ll take the track down to the river,
That silver stream where the dippers dwell.
Let’s clamber over mossy rocks,
And bid our urban lives farewell.

One last push will see us free,
One last climb up to the ridge.
We’re miles away from the place we left,
Far past the vale and the river bridge.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Each step from here on is uncharted,
As we walk toward the setting sun.
Twin souls with a shared desire,
To melt into old Albion.

So lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Inglorious

 

The vixen lay dying in the undergrowth, wracked with searing pain where the cruel snare bit deep into flesh and sinew. She was used to being hurt, indeed her whole life had been one of pain and hardship, but she knew that her struggle was nearing an end. The hunters had found one of the places where she came to drink, and had concealed their crude wire traps in the bracken that lay along her regular path to the woodland stream. Traps with one purpose, to devastate that which had previously been so full of life and spirit.

Her final act was to drag herself into the undergrowth, as far from her natal den as her maimed leg could manage. Her kits were strong and nearly full-grown, yet their chances of surviving the winter without her were slight. She knew that her moribund form would attract attention from animal and human alike, so finding a secluded spot to wait for the inevitable end was critical. Her final act of motherhood would be to try to keep the evil fuckers as far from her younglings as possible. In seclusion lay safety, and in safety lay a chance.

The fine divide between life and death was a constant in her short life, and she herself had been the angel of death and destroyer of worlds. She was a killer, but she was different to those that were soon to take her life. She killed to live, and to ensure the survival of her offspring. She killed because she was part of nature, and nature is primal and vicious. Yet she never killed when she didn’t have to, and she never killed for pleasure. Her conquerors were different. They were not part of nature, but instead saw it as something to be owned and controlled, to assert dominion over. It’s true that their species had once killed to live, but those days were many generations past. Now they killed for sport and took pleasure from apportioning pain. They hunted for the sheer joy of taking life, self-proclaimed gods intoxicated by their own importance.

None of this mattered now, of course, as she lay still in the undergrowth. Her breathing grew laboured and shallow, her eyesight milky and dim. The fading light of day picked out the crystalline sparkle of the leaf litter, the cold air turning evening dew to the first hoar-frost of winter. She had so nearly made it. She had so nearly escaped the brutal end met by so many of her kin, and yet the hunters had won in the end. In some ways her ending was more peaceful than those meted out to others of her kind, be it by the crack of a shotgun or evisceration by the baying hounds, however the result was always the same. One more life exchanged for a fleeting moment of satisfaction, soon forgotten. One fewer scrap of beauty in the world.

She thought she could feel the sun on her back as she closed her eyes, never to open them again. The hunters never found her.