As it’s New Year’s Day this post is simply the opening of Chapter 1, ‘Searching for New Year’, from A Blackbird’s Year: Mind in Nature. This excerpt starts to explain how my creative writing about nature underpins my research into connection to nature. Illustrations by Danielle Callaghan
Searching for New Year
1st January to 29th January
A winter’s chorus opened a grey day and the first day of January, but my New Year arrives when the blackbird returns to song after the silence of its summer moult, a silence that continues as days shorten, deep into winter. So each day I set out to find the return of the blackbird’s voice. On this first day, I visited the heart of my local landscape of Needwood, where once a wild forest stood, but now just a few parcels of wood pasture remain between hedgerows and pastoral land. One such wood pasture is Brankley, a place I return to throughout the year, a landscape where solitude’s spirit can be found in winter’s mists, a summer woodland of hidden spaces, a place I struggle to leave as it reflects each season with intensity. On this January day at Brankley, a verve of clouds in blue was quickly extinguished by more threatening brethren, and the day became winter’s grey, illuminated by the bright song of the robin. A band of rain passed, its frequency mapped out by sound with increasing intensity as it returned to land. A kestrel ripped down through the arriving stillness and disappeared into the grasses, emerging to depart with prey gripped between talons, as occasional breaks in the cloud appeared. Against a horizon looking like slate scree hewn from a Welsh mountain, a copse shone briefly in a flare of colour, before being returned to glorious gloom. Close by, below a deserted rookery, the robin was now plaintiff, as I set-off, climbing to a hilltop, where a blackbird sat silent, profiled below a waxing daytime moon.
The small woodland at Brook Hollows is my closest wood, a place I’ve known since childhood. A wood that became smaller as I grew, but has regrown as I’ve learnt how to see with the fascination of a child. I visit the hollows when I’d rather keep close to home, when time is tight, light is fading or the distant summer’s heat discourages a longer walk. On this short winter’s day, a week into January, I was drawn in again in my search for the blackbird’s song. Alder cones, blown free by the gales, were scattered on the pathways, those rivers of human habit across the landscape. Spent birch slashed the bracken, a magpie lifted with sunshine wings and long-tailed tits navigated the strong air in low, short jumps. At a clearing in the heart of the wood, the buffeted trees seemed to be hanging on as the planet span, their high branches fluid as rooted trunks grasped the earth. I stood with them at ground level, where the air was calm and the chatter of birds could be heard, but the blackbird did not sing. There were many birds weaving the trees, and I let them be themselves and their patterns, rather than thinking of their labels. With the day closing, I looked down and noticed a trail of deer prints before me, they were small, from muntjac I thought, and I set-off to follow them; a pathway and habit shared.
I continued my search for New Year on the most beautiful of January days at Brankley Pasture, mild and bright with cloud teased across the blue. There was a fusion of birdsong and robins echoed one another; one climbing ever higher on its chosen branch as a blackbird perched silent beyond. The blackbird also seemed to listen, for when the robin left it did not sing to fill the void and announce New Year, it departed too. I passed a kestrel sat hooded grim, a peregrine, the pale and upright executioner, and a dozen black coots in the January stillness. A pair of crows explored the naked oak and fifty lapwings, broad and dichotomous, left the field as I crossed towards the trees. There, plumed seeds of the rosebay willowherb were silver sentinel ghosts in the gloom of the wood, arched over the path like a sabre arch at a woodland wedding. Trees weakened by honey fungus had succumbed to the wind and pigeon remains were scattered in the woodland ride, where the bats occupy the night.
Days later and there was a silence of snow at Brankley. It formed smooth sinusoidal arcs over clumps of grasses in the rough pasture. I imagined the mounds as the emerging heads of an underground army, buried upright to guard the trees; entwined by their roots in the cold brown earth, waiting to be fed by the fallen and decaying snag trees. The midday sun had been reduced by the deadweight of January sky, but by the evening, its talons scoured the horizon, the trail of a departing phoenix defeated by the stillness of the day. It was a stillness that encased the landscape and held all within, impervious to the blackbird that hammered with alarm at the dusk, like a flighted blacksmith, trapped behind a window on the world, mute of song and denied the freedom of the air and dalliance of space by the blanket of silence.
Back near my home, between Brook Hollows and the rookery wood, I walked yesterday’s snow across the meadow, where the tops of individual grasses were a thousand trails in the expanse of white; some other sky of comets in some other world where matter has coalesced about a star. It was a breezy day, but towards the north west corner of this field is a place often still of wind, where one can stand and hear the blown canopy bellow as the wind tells its secrets to the leaves. Yet out in the open, where one has to be determined against the gale, the beat of the great tit still won free from the roar of the hollows. I reached rookery wood, where drifts of snow revealed the secret patterns and shape of the wind, a channel in the lee of a trunk showing where one day it might fall.
Toward the end of the day, as I walked towards my home through the cooling night air, the low moon travelled with me, shy beyond the copse. It focussed a sphere of attention on each tree that passed, revealing an ever-changing fractal network of darkness. The moon’s glow permeated the surrounding cloud as if it had descended into our atmosphere. And I thought of other orbs of light, the kingfisher and departing magpie, the perfection of the snowberry; how nature can be smooth or angular, but always of compelling beauty. The cold on my bare hands returned me to reality, as the quarter peel of the church bells, rather than the blackbird’s song, crossed the village to signal day’s end.
The pause of nature during winter stretches the wait for the blackbird’s New Year, but a cutting crystal frost at dawn released another day and I spent the morning by the oxbow once more. Nature had worked a transformation. Every natural form had a new layer that engaged the light and transformed the ordinary. My progress rotated the painter’s alder through all its forms to silhouette as it turned about its axis. The flat and frosted floodplain was intense in the sunlight, a white dusted sea of green led to the river that flowed cheerfully alongside crystallised brethren, yet a passing kingfisher managed to amplify even this intensity of light. It was a day to walk and write on foot, enjoying the time as the bright landscape seemed to anticipate the blackbird’s coming song.
I continued upstream for a little while, on the bank between hawthorn and willow, following the curves to where the shallows can be heard. I arrived at the remains of the quarter-mile bridge, where steam trains once crossed the river. A concrete pillbox sat alien and square. Imposed and descended. Cutting and heavy. Deliberate and forlorn. The cell of connectedness for those without the sense for nature, those deaf to the song of the Earth. Where humans had carved the landscape, through railway embankments, flood defences and remains of ridge and furrow, the contours perpendicular to the sun were green. The frost now liquid drops, clinging to the grass, green waves running across the dusted sea. I continued my voyage towards my New Year, past grasses sugared by frost and paper cut hogweed that stood proud of the remaining herbage of summer. Longer grasses curled, like fibre optic arcs, white cloud chamber traces of particles in some quantum world. A bullfinch guarded a bank-side willow as the River Dove looked to boil, distant ripples bouncing the sun. Mist rose above the water and a young alder rained against the sun, this day was a scene of joy.
That afternoon I travelled to another of my regular haunts at Dunstall, a place of mature woodland and new plantations on the Trent valley risings, where I could stand until only the landscape remained. A place so familiar to me that I can walk it within my mind’s eye and sense the changes in the feel of the air as it finds channels through the landscape. By the afternoon, the sun that challenged my eyes had vanished vast tracts of frost, but much remained in the shadows of the woods where the robin sang loud. Through the bracken, I entered the heart of the wood and found myself in a bright clearing, between the evergreen cherry laurels shooting green. Beyond the woodland, frosted paths chalked through the long grasses, sunken from the sun.
The sun set with frost still in the shade. Silent blackbirds flew direct into the fading light and rooks were in flight about their nests. I imagined their higher perspective of the landscape and let my mind soar with them, together seeing more as we toured above the woodland canopy and lines of the plantations that pattern the slopes. I returned to earth and walked as the sun’s fall produced a wider brightness in the sky. At the lake, air was trapped beneath ice like white leaves of a water lily. A grey wagtail departed, dark against the sun. Present and of the landscape, nature was my thoughts and they were the networked pathways of the trees, asking how a tree supported stoutly, divides to nothing. How the path of a bird is invisible in the air it disturbs. How the unseen is no less real. How mind might be as it extends beyond our bodies to bring the landscape inside.
A robin’s song tried to explain as it shared the patterns of my mind. I could feel it, like a gentle hook on my consciousness, that wrapper of thought and being that engulfs the activity of which we are unconscious. How song and shape arrives without our knowing. This hook of robin’s song seemed to be other than sound, a connection not through the senses, but as if as one, such was my place in the landscape at that moment. The song was my sound, reflected my mind and the fading warmth of the sun was the warmth of my blood, for our flesh is inseparable from the flesh of the Earth. I had realised this months before after spending a year writing as I walked. Making simple notes of my interactions with the natural world, the stimuli I noticed within it and my response. This was not a dry scientific account, but writing that grew from attentive observation and documentation to a lyrical celebration of the joys of finding deep nature in the local countryside. Ultimately, it changed my understanding of my self and its shared place in the landscape. I progressed from observer of the natural world to an emotional connectedness manifested in a greater appreciation of the beauty and energy of the landscape. At first, I saw little more than nature’s details, but with repeated engagement and time, a different landscape was revealed. I increasingly felt part of nature, I started to refer to the flesh of the Earth, flowed through nature’s veins as I walked and felt the landscape and my mind merge, my sense of self dissolve. I started to realise that the natural world and landscape is not an external Other, something we encounter – it is part of our being.
This is the story of my continued journey through the flesh of the Earth, bounded by the blackbird’s year, considering our embeddedness in the natural landscape and the nature of mind along the way. Observing the story of the day, ties one into it, to be part of the patterns of nature, rather than the pursuit of linear goals. By being immersed in the landscape away from intrusive thoughts, a place can be found in the present moment, where nature can be experienced in an open and accepting way. A systematic engagement with nature, achieved through writing on foot, leads to a deep knowing and freedom of mind that enhances the sensory impact of nature still further.
Continue the search for New Year with A Blackbird’s Year: Mind in Nature.