What's Precious on Lake Como
I have tried many times to describe what I love about Lake Como in northern Italy. Every time I go, any time of the year, I am defeated by the desire to state the obvious: it’s beautiful; or I hesitate at the precipice of cliches about mountains and lakes, Italian villages and wine. Today, as we drove to Menaggio, I finally realised what the beauty really is.
It begins on the lakeshore, in ripples in golden waves on the shoreline sprinkled with golden rocks. I am always drawn to the water’s edge like some Arthurian knight hearing the Lady of the Water talk in lapping tongues, making promises of healing, cleansing, purity. There are only a few metres of this golden promise before the colours descend into turquoise depths. Fish flit around the edge, some big and unhurried.
Some days the bountiful lake hazes with afternoon mist. The mountains become rumours, the far shore a blur and the lake sings of memories of childhood: playing in moorland rivers or in rock pools on the Devon coast of England. Ancient glacial water gulps down tiny droplets of time. Waves giggle over rocks and the sadness sinks deep.
Most days the view across the lake is of orange and cream roofed villages clustered on tiny lips of land. The famous isthmus of Bellagio dressed in lace strips. The steep pearl topped mountains receding into dreams. The whole combination is something beyond art, bigger than intention. I raise a glass of wine and breathe deeply, wondering what the mountains think of us.
Those glacier-scraped mountains just ignore me with their stoney frowns. I am nearly nothing to them, not noticeable, an organic moment of punctuation in time’s long sentence. They are more beautiful for their eroded indifference. I’m unconcerned that the prayers go unnoticed. The stones and lake reflect me.
But in that reflection there is a lesson of exquisite beauty. We are alive and they are not. Long after I am gone and they will continue to not notice, but for a moment, your moment, we are more than all the stone in that magnificent mountain. What we have is more precious.
Rumspringa in Southern Oregon
At a Motel 6 at Gold Beach an Amish family pack their car. This is Rumspringa: their taste of the outside world, ‘running around’. In theory, there’s no adult control. There can be parties, mobile phones. Most find the taste enough and return.
The teenagers quietly obey their parents. The teenage boy has a beard that looks like thick fuzz. His sister has a pale blue dress and white headpiece that is both beautifully elegant and reminiscent of a dystopian novel. Are they leaving or returning? They seem in a subtle hurry, not drawing attention, just leaving.
Heading south on Highway 101 through the southern Oregon countryside. We cross an invisible line and the car radio now rants about how false evolution is. Callers urgently state their claims, preaching to the converted. Apparently in Texas, they found dinosaur fossils with human remains or footprints. Megalodon sharks might still be alive, not ancient after all. No one knows what tonsils are for, you know. Or the appendix. We all stopped changing after The Flood, which wasn’t that long ago.
The next morning in a coffee shop in Gold Beach. An animated old man holds court with a group of reverential peers, all entranced by his sardonic-tongued preaching.
"Nearer we get to death, the more a church is our waiting room and the Bible our instruction manual."
He starts describing a local woman as short and unattractive. Snuffled giggles from his complicit disciples. Sigh from a young woman listening at a table nearby. He nods her an apology.
The cafe owner sits down and confesses her mother’s many heart problems, depression, numerous other ailments. Good days and bad. She sighs, heavy shoulders.
“They fixed her heart. Old ma be haunting us for a few more years yet!"
In a queue for the power boat tour of Rogue river a man talks about his first wife being Catholic.
"But we had a bun in the oven under six months, so got married."
His second wife is Jewish and he’s grown to really appreciate Judaism as he was always interested in Israel.
We all board the boat and surge up river, into God’s own country.
Jesus and His Animal Disciples
Herzlich willkommen auf der Wildmoos Alm brauhaus, 1338m.
It’s two days after Valentine’s Day, and my wife and I sit in the main reception room of the Wildmoos Alm brauhaus, wondering where exactly in the world we are. We had traipsed up the mountainside from Seefeld, the Austrian Winter Olympic town, snow crunching underfoot, the sky a hungry blue, our breath silky ice.
Now we’re jammed elbow to elbow with hikers, skiers and snow-tourists while Elvis, Abba, John Denver and Austrian folk music play. A jocular waiter weaves through tight tables with beer, trays of schnapps, bowls of strudels, meat dumplings, saying, "Hello, Johnny" to other English tourists. Not us. We are invisible, for the time being.
Above is the crowning glory of Evangelical Alpine hunters: Jesus on the cross and stuffed outcasts from Noah's Tirol travels. Under Our Lord’s wounded feet, two shocked grouse; to His right, a devilish looking ram's skull and horns; to His left, a defunct cuckoo clock and the grinning head of a boar with a bell below his neck and a scarf made of dry viper's skin. Under His holy nailed feet half a brown bear rearing out of the wall, mouth aghast in silent road, claws scraping the air, as surprised as we are to be hanging out here.
Nearby, clamouring for a space next to the Saviour, is a strange assembly of regional Germanic acolytes: antlers, foxes on their hind legs, stoats in glass dioramas, framed paintings of falcons and deer, photographs of Bayern Munich FC and a random assortment of past wedding guests.
Around Purgatory there’s an even stranger retinue: a huge straw-filled Tirol bear, corn cobs drying from a rafter, witches flying from the eves and locked in glass cabinets topped with a marmot, a goose, a wooden Tyrollean farmer; an indoor conifer tree hanging with fairies, flowers, children's tokens; bundles of mistletoe above a corner table.
I don’t remember when we left or if we ever did. We are still sitting in the main reception room of the Wildmoos Alm brauhaus, wondering where exactly in the world we are. Jesus looks down at us and sighs with divine disappointment.
Gokotta (Swedish): the act of waking up early with the purpose of going outside to listen to the first birds sing.
February begins with a colleague’s observation that it’s nice to hear birds singing in the trees again. After the suffocation of winter, the birds have remembered their voices; the dawn’s returned to its former glory. The birds have been brought back from the dead. Now I am listening and trying to learn. I am trying to feel as resurrected as they are, as hopeful for the sluggish sun, as passionate for my place on the branch of life.
What we hear as melody is the birds’ urgent purpose: to stake out a territory, to attract a mate, to declare dominance to other males. How lucky for us that this accident of evolution by sexual selection gives us such pleasure. It is a beauty born of a mystery: how do birds learn to sing? Do chicks listen to their fathers? Are the notes somehow sowed into their DNA? Young cavorting male birds-of-Paradise have to practise their dance moves. Do our blessed songbirds have to practise their singing?
And what of the birds that do not sing? Do songbirds make all the other species jealous? Of course not, for this is a human emotion. They compete within their own species, in their own trees. There is no past or future for birds, just the singing of the now. The songbirds don’t need us to listen to their singing in the mornings. They don’t care if we smile or sigh or even interrupt them. We cannot better them; we will always be their students.
Their singing is for me a memory of childhood and wood, of torn time mended and the spool wound back. A blackbird’s refrains and trills are reassuring. I am still a boy. An orange moon rises in a pastel sky over the western alps to be snuffed out by grey clouds. The birds erupt in excitement from conifers and silver birches, as they did when I was a boy. Even when a pigeon coos, a sparrow twitters, a gull cries - I am a boy again. The birds always bring me back.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
From ‘Auguries of Innocence’, 1803
An unfurled question mark answers the point where our infinity begins. Standing on the beach, studying the way the sea greets the horizon, the way the clouds pour out in smoky angles as it created at the edge of the world. Cracks in the clouds creating all kinds of layers and moments of illuminations; shafting bolts of light and spreads of gloom.
No wonder William Blake stood here at Felpham and thought the sea was talking to him. Illusions of sunlight and wind singing and cloud play must have fluttered through his imagination. This is one of those seemingly unremarkable, passable places where Human and Nature can face each other, taking turns to speak and listen.
Looking at this horizon you can sense the world turning under you. The tides tug at the feeling that you are a part of something grander but also indifferent; ancient and renewed every day, beyond and before human. The waves swirling, pounding, reeling back over and over again. A swell and release that cleanses buzzing minds. A gift that is unknown in its giving.
That mourning cry of the gulls is a rallying call for your memories, a reminder that you have stood here many times before. Going backwards, you understand it less and less but enjoy it more and more; back to a happy childhood scrabbling around on the beach with no concepts of horizons and hunger. Just building model fortresses with a material worn down from ancient rock over millennia of wind and water. Dredging out canals and fighting the inevitable swell of sea water - human versus nature, a slowly but happily losing battle. What the sea takes, it will give back tomorrow.
Here on the horizon a line being drawn between the time before I stood here and the now. The now being stretched to almost infinity, suggesting so in the shallowest of curve. The future remains uncertain, questionable and unnecessary. The horizon is enough.
The sea-chewed remnants of life lay littered on the beachy gums of the La Ventana bay. Toothed debris of wood and seaweed, bleached coral chunks and plastic mark the tidal line. Here lay tossed scattered skeletons of fish: spinal columns, skulls agape with sharp teeth, the leathery, empty sacks of fish skins, discarded vertebrae; the resting place for tenants of the Sea of Cortez, the emptying Aquarium of the World.
Always patrolling are the vultures, always keen for any carrion. Two politely take turns tugging inside a fish head. Two seagulls watch and snatch a lump when the vultures get bored and take to the wing, wind spilling them up to look-out posts. All along the beach, vultures swoop and glide, wobbling on hungry wingtips. Suddenly an osprey in the air, ducking a seagull trying to steal the wriggling fish in its left claw. It disappears, fish still squirming.
A squadron of pelicans glide over the water, bellies touching down on gentle waves. They sit watching on the water with their huge bills lowered like mourners. A few frigates arrive, painting black patient lines with forked winds and split tails. These Pacific wanderers hang on the breeze with wings cut like kites, above endless waves, occasionally moving origami wings.
Only on New Year’s Eve do I appreciate what the Buddhists say about the transient nature of life: the coming and going of everything, of events and experiences, of thoughts and feelings. We sit on a beach drinking margaritas and watching a sunset made for memories: the sinking sun colours rippled clouds from pale orange to crimson. A bonfire on the beach is lit and the primal summons of the flame licks the sky. People gather as the colours in the sky dim into disappearance. The fire on the beach grows as the fire in the sky slithers out.
I suddenly see what a privilege it is to be alive, to be here on this day, to be on this beach with the lapping waves of water and sunlight. To not have the furious hunger of the seabirds, to not be fish bones drying on the sand.
Only in my early middle-age years did I piece together the mystery of the jigsaw puzzle. As a child I never understood the attraction of spending hours slotting together pieces of a randomly divided picture to end up with a complete image that would then be broken up again. Why would mesmerized adults while away the precious hours? The older the adult, the more they liked puzzling.
Now I’m middle aged, the counter-intuitive has slowly revealed its secrets. Here is an activity that defies a crisis, that slows time, that delivers a slow-cooked triumph unlike few other activities. Here is a process that mirrors life itself except here you can be the true master, the divine force of creation and control, defining order from chaos.
The chaos begins with the bang of opening the plastic bag and the spilling of all those elemental pieces that swirl around, discordant and disconnected. Then bring in energy and patience to sort out the particles: a pile for the edges and the rest can wait. Now the defining of the space, connecting corners so that the space takes shape and the real investment of time begins.
Hours become days and weeks as you slowly sift the primeval soup and draw together crooked atoms to form elements, shapes, a sense of something grander. That triumph of a joining enough pieces to make a swirling ball of sense.
Slowly bring order to chaos with the organization of pieces. Gravity of the edges creates a defined structure and space. You play at being a Biblical god forming something meaningful from darkness and clay. Each successful click is a step in the evolution of this matter towards complexity, something orderly emerging from the disorder: the life of the picture you are animating.
So it unfolds, this puzzle of your life. So you devote time and concentration, and you build and create, you realize and revitalize. The truth: the puzzle is everything you have ever wanted to achieve, including the sense of completion and knowledge that complexity can withstand the chaos. You are the master. You are the maker. Now it is your choice how long to preserve and when to destroy.
The waves growl high and their white manes are toppled by the charge of the high tide hunting the beach. A few seconds of ferocity flattened out into a frothing line in the sand; a furry that fizzes out into the thinnest of watery thoughts.
My wife runs off down the beach, a declining figure becoming a near-future worry and an anxious question mark. She runs southwards where an arcing white whale marks the Nestucca river as it steams into the sea.
I stand by a fossilised spine of wood spearing the sand, darkened by a forgotten forest. The storm-stripped trunk is too big to roll in the surf like other lesser logs, so now it lays beached, a slowly rotting memorial to the forest it was torn from.
Sanderlings play chase with the surf, stabbing the just-wet sand until new waves flurry them up beach with dismissive hands. They scuttle back and forth through the seconds, robotic legs a blur under white bellies.
A tired calligrapher paints drooping lines of geese spelling northward, outlining the darkening sentence of winter. White commas punctuate the space around Cape Kiwanda’s prehistoric painted cliff. The seaward clouds begin to clear.
The sudden sun promises to dismiss the seasonal cynics. Midwinter exclaims another year. The relief of my wife’s returning figure in the distance. The crescendoing percussion of waves and surf sucking back on the sand as the tide turns.
An hour later we sit reunited in Cafe Stimulus and watch the fury of the white hands waving above Cape Kiwanda: a few seconds of bursting fists, then the hand brought scraping down on the Cape’s extended leg of land, a temporary white waterfall weeping away into the wet rock.
How can anyone stand to listen that constant base thump of the sea, the throb of a tsunami promised in every evacuation map, pointing hand, safety. How can anyone relax in those dune-heaped homes on the edge probability, the mocking wind accompanying such temporary, typically human hopes.
One day the shaken sea will rise and one great hand will wave us all away, leaving only Cape Kiwanda and white water weeping into wet rock.
Seeing Snow For the First Time
I remember it clearly: driving slowly uphill to our new home on Bramble Walk road. The snow was falling thick around us and Dad was nervous about the 1974 Mark II Ford slipping on the icy road. The snowflakes splashed against the windows, smearing a view of white meadows and snow laden trees.
I was four years old and we were moving from our temporary home with our paternal grandmother to a bungalow on the edge of Epsom. Epsom Common. A phrase that belied its countryside appearance with open meadows bordered by a tangled wood.
This was the first time I remember seeing snow, so much snow whirling around. A true blizzard. The fairy tale woods were coated; a Narnia of endless white to explore. We stayed in the car while Dad unlocked the front door and made sure the path was safe.
I don’t remember any of the first days of moving in except snapshots of the family legends: panic at the frozen pipes and using large sheets of cardboard to shovel the snow off the path. Our new, modest home sat perched a few metres higher than the south facing meadow, which resulted in an epic windswept drift of snow higher than my brother and I.
Imagine the fun we had diving in and out of the snow, sledding down the tiny incline - a hill to us; building vast snow bases and having snowball fights with relieved parents. Bramble Walk inactive, the cars are stuck to the spot and piled high with snow. The houses were still, the bare trees silent with their stationary birds. What a welcome to the home for the rest of my childhood.
As an adult, every time I see giddy flurries of snow drifting past the window - white puffs swirling through orange lamp light and quietly whitening the city - seconds snap back decades. My mind blurred by the busy greyness of adulthood is cast back to childhood, this snowy beginning. A smile nudges the adult aside, reminds me that happiness is found in these memories.
Going to sleep looking at the drifting snow, you can hear Peter Pan tapping at the window.
The Wisdom of Photons
I wake up in the middle of the night and a single star is winking at me above the apartment block roof. Photons fired out thousands, maybe millions of years ago, skimming through space at imaginable speeds, slipping through solar systems, sneaking past planets - one true line not diverted, just a little bent by the occasional nudge of gravity but always returning to its purpose.
Now ancient photons enter my eye and fizz an image down my optic nerve to my brain: a star, a burning giant of gas billions of years old exploding with a light brighter than a million suns; then dying and leaving its elemental afterlife scattered through the drifting dust. That dust coalescing into rocks and rocks crunching into a planet that eventually means I can inherit those same elements in my body, every body, every form of matter around me. We are all literally and symbolically children of the stars, bonded to distant celestial objects through an ancient timeline of unfathomable fortune.
The image refocuses on that particular planet being formed in a Goldilocks Zone from gravity-sticky lump of rocks and luck, smashing together, sticking, spinning in just the right place to make our home. Not too hot, not too cold.
The image evolves: four billion years of evolution, from blobs of plasma to wriggling life, from stumbling reptiles to shivering mammals. Continents crunching as they cruise through the eons.
The image gains humanity: millions of my ancestors living and loving short lives for me to be here, in this bed, looking at starlight and feeling the glaring truth: on the long road of Order to Disorder - a journey of trillions of years uncountable in this fleeting human mind - I am but a flicker, a tiny finger of light and heat, hardly noticeable in this minuscule moment of almost endless time.
Yet I am a flame nonetheless, with heat and light and mass and worth. So I must shine, shine as bright as I can, all the brighter for what little light I am. I smile and thank the photons for teaching me, reminding me. What they lack in mass they make up for in wisdom.
A poetic-essay style blog with a limit of 365 words. 365 like the days of the year - my name being one of those days!