It feels like only recently my April events were being cancelled. It feels like a lifetime ago that I sat down in the spare room to record the readings I would have given anyway for people who would have attended.
And now it’s June, and I should be in a bookshop somewhere in Scotland reading from the newly published paperback edition of The Seafarers. Only I’m in England, still locked down, but with the benefit of a garden and a rose bush and a pile of books to prop my phone up on…
So my Scottish events this April have been cancelled – and in the absence of a miracle, it’s safe to assume that my Suffolk event will be too – and I feel really gutted about this. Giving readings and answering questions is something I greatly enjoy. So while in self-isolation, beating the boundaries of my small flat and trying to keep Morag the cat at the appropriate self-distancing distance, I recorded some passages of the book on my phone, to make up for those cancelled events. I hope you enjoy them. To make it more like an event, if you have any questions, try tweeting me @steverutt, leaving a comment or by using the contact form.
And because no event is complete without me trying to flog a book…
“Eagles? When I saw my first eagle,” Cate says, “it was on the single-track road to Ullapool. We startled it as we drove around the corner and it flew off, wings as wide as the road. And my memories of it” – Cate’s eyes widen – “are as if it happened in slow motion.”
Cate is right. Eagles, for those of us who lack the fortune to see them regularly, seem to have this quality. Of crystal clarity and a slowing down of time. It becomes all about the moment.
The sky is a conjurer. Its sleight of hand is to reveal and hide in plain sight.
“I’m sure that was an eagle,” I say. Miranda pulls the car over by the side of the road, twenty minutes’ drive out of Stornoway. A scattering of roadside houses and heathery bog to our right. To our left a loch and a smooth brown moor, suede-like, rolling to the black hills of south Lewis.
The seconds stretch by. I become increasingly frantic. And then it pops out beyond the roof of a house.
A big bird, black against the bright sky, in a lazy-flapping flight. A buzzard is harassing it, diving at a wing bigger than the whole of itself.
A young white-tailed eagle. It drifts for thirty seconds, unbothered by the buzzard before it vanishes over the fold in the moor that hides the rest of the island from us.
And then we turn around.
It’s sometimes impossible to say what first draws your eye. It must have been the slow movement, of a dark shape against those dark hills. Or of the sun catching on the soft-edges of feathers, ringing slow wings with a halo of light, throwing the bird into relief against the landscape as it flies directly towards us. An adult white-tailed eagle. Pale head, white-tail, body the colour of the island of Lewis.
It carries on coming towards us. A wingspan of 7 foot is the salient detail but it is not the whole story. It is the details that the angle throws up that surprise me more. It is the depth. The breast and legs that give it a primordial bulk, that you don’t see when they are high in the sky.
And it carries on coming towards us until it gains height, gliding, disappearing over the moorland fold, a threshold between our world and its own. And in that moment I realise I can say nothing at all. My thoughts trumped by thrill. My language dissolved.
The wind rakes the island like a reckoning.
Overnight Harris has been painted with snow and now it is alternating sunshine and hail. There’s not much to do this February day other than drive and walk and sit and stare.
At Luskentyre the sand is as soft and powdery as fresh snowfall. We watch waves roll in past Taransay and to the north, the clouds scud over white peaks reflected on wet beach, and the hills to the south turn black as the snow rolls in. We invent new gauges for visibility. We decide it’s ok when the distant headland reappears, even if the hilltops are still shrouded, the sea’s horizon still smudged with blizzards.
We drive through the landscape to the lochanscape, then the rockscape, then the lunarscape. Along the south coast of Harris the valley walls have a lace-curtain of snow and ice. A raven reverberates around them, the sound like a distant rock movement. It draws my eyes to another black speck, a winged glitch in vision. And I know what it is immediately. I can tell by the way my breath-catches in my throat and the way that my fingers tremble on the focus wheel of my binoculars.
One glitch becomes two. A pair of golden eagles rise above the valley walls and now the raven is nowhere to be seen. They drift against the snow-cloud grey sky. The smaller male folds his wings in, drops briefly, unfurls them and rises up again. The female repeats. They undulate through the sky until they too have drifted over the ridgeline. And then the hail begins again and the sky closes in.
Cranberries lie by my feet, in the sodden skin of the bog’s sphagnum moss. I pick one up, rub the moisture from its shiny red skin and eat it. Bitterness bursts into my mouth.
I am accompanying Andy, the reserve officer, on his data-logger rounds of Kirkconnel Flow. We are on top of ten metres of peat that shakes with each step, pooling glossy water around the soles of our wellies in a way that feels like a threat. Kirkconnel Flow is a solid wetland, an uneasy truce between water held stationary like soil and peat that moves like liquid. It feels like one careless step could undo this truce.
It is more productive to walk over the heather, though it is misleading to experience the flow drily walking from heather clump to heather clump. It is called a flow for a reason. Water gurgles around us, the wet ground sucks at our feet. Andy’s data-loggers are recording the water level of the flow. He gets a laptop out of his rucksack, plugs it into the data-logger and kneels in the heather while the technology reveals whether the peatland restoration – their attempt at fixing a leaky bog – has done its work. Whether the flow is full with water again, whether it is flowing with life. And while he looks at the screen, I look around at the warmth of the winter vegetation. The heather is twiggy, bony in its winter bareness. It sits over a layer of dark-green blueberry bushes and light green reindeer moss. Sodden sphagnum is a green in-between. Like the cranberries, it is only through looking down that this world is revealed.
To look up: through the bare heather a wren fidgets, flicking from clump to clump, its tail cocked, its voice irritable, scolding our presence. It is a warmer brown than the heather, but not as warm as the tawny colour of the bog, that I can’t fathom. The brown and green at my feet becomes richer, warmer when seen at distance, not dissimilar to the warm brown of the Scots pine bark that is our horizon. Distantly there are ponds the colour of coffee. But this is not as distant as its possible to see in a peat bog. Peat bogs accrete dead matter that doesn’t decay, instead without oxygen materials are preserved in their state of death. This is to say that peat bogs grow at a measurable rate. One millimetre a year. The ten metres below me has steadily accumulated over the past 10,000 years. And if I was to sink below the surface – which always feels possible on this weird ground – it wouldn’t be long before I was closer to the last ice age than the current day. The wren that flicks through the bones of winter heather, could be only metres from an Irish elk skull.
And it makes me feel weird, like vertigo. Here I become as small, young, and inconsequential as a cranberry in the bog of time.
I know the Solway empties like a sink with the plug pulled out. But still it surprises me. When we pulled up, the car windscreen looked south over sea to the frost-glazed fields of Cumbria. We were here for a low-tide bird count but the sea didn’t bother us. We would sit, have lunch, talk, and soon enough the sea would metamorphose to mud and an alternate, avian tide would flow back instead, flocking on the freshly revealed land.
Between bites of my sandwich, I watch a goldcrest shimmy along the blue-green branches of a fir tree, its bill a tweezer, delicately picking out the insect food that I cannot see. It flits away and I turn back to the Solway and the sea is less. There are stones and sandbanks appearing. Against the flow of water, waders fly up the firth. Curlew come first, then oystercatchers, then dunlin. Before they can spread themselves out, while the water still drains away, they bunch together. We give each other directions to the flocks based on radio masts, wind turbines, the modern landmarks of the Cumbrian coast. It is between two masts that I see it first. I see it as a rolling ripple. Dunlin turning silver, grey, white in the sunlight. A flock oscillating. Then a wave of oystercatchers, a ribbon of lapwings.
The thought dawns on me so late that if I were a wader I would be dead. This is not a pre-roost display, a murmuration of convenience, a flaunting of avian skill. This is the motion of fear. Predator. I catch its shape a second later. A familiar shape, a familiar thrill. The peregrine curves up, high above the Solway. It levels out for a second, flying onwards. Then it flips.
It drops like an anchor. Like gravity with anger. The hunger of speed. An action as quick as a flash and it is within the flock. More oscillation, shivering shapes of waders. Within a beat the peregrine is up again. Then down. Tearing through the flock, sifting out the weak, the ill, the slow of thought or fear. It finds nothing.
It exits high, heading further up the firth, panic spread in a handful of seconds.
I first saw a peregrine stoop over the Tesco carpark in Dunblane, almost a decade ago. Since then, I have never seen a peregrine kill another bird. But every year I see one come close, to the point where I am in no doubt that I will witness it in the next few years. I have no idea how I will feel in that moment. If my sympathy lies in the thrill of the chase, or with the life lost. Or with the knowledge that nature will just go on, regardless of my thoughts and feelings.
Yannis says, “The locals here are crazy. They have vendettas like
the Italians. These farmers –
He takes his hand from the steering wheel and waves it at a ruin.
– had a bomb go off under their house. Crazy.”
He slows down as we pass. Concrete ripped and twisted, walls at wrong
angles, metal torn, window frames caved in. And my mind runs in reverse down
the tangle of dusty Cretan back roads to the roadside shrine shop on the edge
of Chania. Piles of plastic Jesuses, and tiny terracotta chapels, sweating
under the holy fire of the Mediterranean summer. These shrines, when bought,
are returned to their native habitat, beside the verges of these winding roads.
They are like punctuation, hyphens joining chapel to chapel, a network of white-walled,
red-tiled roofs in the middle of the countryside. I don’t know if these shrines
and chapels were placed here due to a fear of life, or a fear of death, or just
a fear of the local driving. Or, as Yannis airily mentions, the darker side to
life that can lurk in paradises.
But I stick to what I know. We are far south enough for the Land Rover stereo to blast us with Libyan radio stations. The road rises beyond the Omalos plateau, leaving the flat bowl ringed by shark’s teeth peaks. Yannis knows the route beyond the tarmac. He threads the Land Rover between boulders at the beginning of a rubble track, hairpin turning its way up into the heart of the Lefka Ori: the White Mountains. The lower slopes are grey and green: limestone and mountain herbs, thyme and ironwort, scattered olive and oleander bushes.
And I stick to what I feel, which is that altitude works like time. It
changes things. It makes you feel weird until you acclimatise to minutes that
stretch into days; the hairpins that gradually raise you from 1,000 to 1,200,
1,400 metres up, ears popping with the pressure, the light-headedness that
comes like a taste of alcohol. Like time, altitude is slow and then you’re
almost there: with three griffon vultures circling over the nearest ridge line,
one sailing low over the vehicle, a dark presence that seems larger than should
be possible, a bird the same width as the Land Rover. It moves without effort.
It has a surprising buoyancy for something so large, like a kite on a string circling
in the breeze. It casts a black shadow over the grey road. A reminder of the
way of all flesh – and what happens after.
As we get higher time gets slower, until, like my mind on the plateau it
begins to run backwards. It dials down the heat and takes you back to a
fortnight or further back, when the flower bloomings were just beginning. At
sea level the only sound in the bushes is the incessant chirruping of Italian*
sparrows and the cicadas. The heat there has stifled everything. Up here – back
in time – there is still life to be found.
We get out of the car at the top. 1,600 metres high. Higher than the vultures still languidly soaring, describing the thermals, the invisible lift of the warm air off the mountain ridges that form the sides of the beginning of the Samarian gorge. There is sea visible to the north and south of us and patches of snow still clinging to the creases of the higher peaks. I expected nothing here but the ubiquitous ringing of goat bells and the stark sunlight and the circling of birds of prey. Instead, above the vultures, there are butterflies. A constant stream, all heading north-west over the mountain ridge. Painted ladies, on their migration that defies logic and reason, a flight subject only to the pull of their biology, that will lead them fluttering over sea and mountain from North Africa to North Europe. We spend half an hour on the mountain ridge with the butterflies that are higher than vultures. Hundreds pass. Thousands will.
*Ornithological note: Italian sparrow, Passer italiae, is the species which the sparrows of Crete most resemble, despite apparently not being taxonomically Italian sparrows. Neither house or Spanish sparrow is found on the island.
Two sentences I am still getting used to: I have written a book. It is being launched this week. It seemed the ideal time to turn my tatty old blog into a shiny new website, to take my mind away from the trepidation of the launch. I have included a selection of my best old posts from the lasts six years (on birds, place, books and the one about football), created a new page about my book, and hopefully with the contact page it is a better way to get in touch with me as well.
Where were you at 9pm, the 30th June 1998? I was six, allowed to stay up late for the first time and bouncing on the damask sofa in the first house I remember living in. There are some things you don’t know when you are six: that Argentina means “silver coast”, that we had fought a war sixteen years earlier, or that there’s a place in France called Saint-Etienne that you might one day visit. I’d just discovered who Diego Maradonna was, earlier in the day and I was outraged.
There are some things you shouldn’t know when you are six: anger, confusion, the fallibility of adults. David Beckham was my hero and here he was, sent off for lightly brushing Diego Simeone’s calf with his boot. David Batty’s missed penalty in the shootout seems merely incidental. I had a tantrum.
Where were you on the morning of 21st June 2002? I was in the school hall, watching my heroes half the world away. Watching as if in slow motion, Ronaldinho’s free kick flying off at a weird angle and the dawning realisation that it was looping over David Seaman’s flailing glove. I felt then that if only I reached hard enough I could help him claw it out before it crossed the line. Never mind. Brazil are Brazil and they always win and I was proud of England in defeat: I wanted to console them. To let them know that we always lose and that was fine.
Where were you in 2004? Penalties against Portugal in the beautiful city of Lisbon, eyes glued to the television set, one hot summer’s evening: the familiar quarter final outcome, even then, as a 12 year old amateur pessimist.
2006? Same team. Same opponents. Same result: Owen Hargreaves the pub quiz answer, the only Englishman to score his penalty. YouTube is glorious: a nostalgia trap, that lets me relive my youth in shaky camera angles, dodgy aspect ratios, old commentator’s voices and Des Lynam before he left to present Countdown. I can spend hours on it, as an amateur pseud, filling in the gaps of my shaky childhood memory. I can map out my pessimism: how it grew and flourished, watered by the inevitable tragedy of English football. How they invented disappointment for me.
And it felt like tragedy. Growing up with an interest in football lumbers you with two teams. Your club and your country. I grew up with Manchester United in the zenith of their success. I grew up with the English football team as the unspoken assumption in the school playground. We all believed. This year. This was the year. It was a camouflage. Boys growing up are taught in the playground to assimilate. To not stand out, to bray with bullish confidence, not to have weird interests. We all liked football. It was just what you did. It was all that was safe to talk about, so it was all that we spoke about. Growing up, England were the antithesis of Manchester United: they were the shadow of failure that stalked everything. From my teenage years I sunk into pessimism, defeatism: a world view informed by the world around me that whatever happened, we would lose. Whether that was sport or socially or my exams.
Somewhere along the line I tried to stop caring. We didn’t make it to Euro 2008; I’d discovered birds and books and the surprise first sip of warm bitter being pleasant, and that sport wasn’t really for people like me anyway: chubby, awkward asthmatics who got bullied by those who were better at it than me because they could run. But 2010 was my A-levels. I spent that summer, hot as all past summer seem, with my text books open in front of the TV. England in South Africa, thrashing about: 11 men with the coordination of a dying animal, being mercifully put down by a German team who could’ve won it. I couldn’t pretend any more than I didn’t care.
I have shaken that pessimism off, more or less, though it forms the foundations of my life. Subsiding is always a danger. There is something that will always be attractive, something less painful, about the premature expectation of disappointment.
England are through to a semi-final for the first time in my life. The teams that seemed stalk me – Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Germany – have fallen by the wayside. I have even witnessed in the last week the great impossible: a strong handed English keeper. Eric Dier defying his name. A penalty shootout success. Gareth Southgate’s team have invented something different, something unfamiliar for me: hope.
These words came at 4am, one
sleepless, humid night in Greece. They were written in the Notes app on my
phone while lying in bed and were forgotten about – until now.
The rain wakes us up from our shared
shallow doze, drumming its anxious fingertips across the awning. The town cats
scatter for shelter into the flower beds, their kittens dripping wet behind the
plant pots, softly mewling for milk and mother. From the veranda, the town
appears to be built on top of itself, building upon building, all facing west,
facing the sea. The town is hidden from the harshness of the Greek sun at this
time of the morning by the ridge of limestone mountains behind, green with
olive groves and tall with cypress trees. This indirect morning light picks
everything out in momentary clarity before the day’s stifling heat hides
headlands, mountains beyond mountains, islands and churches that don’t reappear
until the setting sun cuts through the haze, restores the landscape and
honey-coloured cliffs appear as if by magic.
We take the narrow side streets to the harbour, between brightly
coloured walls flaking paint and shuttered windows flung open to reveal the
outside world to the canaries singing in their cages. Taking the table nearest
to the water we drink espresso and chocolate milk, surrounded by fisherman from
the harbour wall, watching the shallows flickering with light and silvered with
seabream, while cats stick their heads into buckets of bait and chew. We
get to try the delicacy of new words on the tip of our tongues, the fresh meat
of kalimera, kalispera, kalinichta. We get to luxuriate in the differences of
The Greek rain, at least not
here, not now, doesn’t last long. Another shower drums into the pavement and
people flee to the cafes for the few minutes until it passes. And after it
does, it leaves a gift. Swallows. Fifteen or so, flitting above the harbour,
blue on dazzling blue. They flicker, sweeping low over the rippling sea,
collecting insects, moving south in one flock minutes later, nothing more than
a fleeting, weather-deposited glimpse of the world’s workings.
The world is – has always been – more connected then we’ve recognised, or perhaps accepted. The swallows are not Greek swallows or European swallows or the northern hemisphere’s. They are the world’s swallows. Birds of summer wherever they go, whether they’re breeding or not. And the problems they face are not local either. They face being shot in Malta, trapped in Cyprus, washed by a Mediterranean storm into the sea, held up by the wrong winds in the Sahara, starving if it’s an arid year in the Sahel, while trusting with their tiny battered bodies to bear themselves south, to Southern Africa. And when they get there their reedbed roosts might not have survived another season or global warming might have dangerously changed their food source. Any loss isn’t just felt by their species or us or any one of those places – but all of them. And this journey is taken in reverse by other migrants – people from Syria, Libya, further south beyond the belts of desert, trusting their bodies, or placing their lives at the mercy of ramshackle boats or bastard criminal traffickers who will abandon them to whatever fate befalls them. After payment, of course.
And on Valtos beach WG Sebald whispers The Emigrants into my ear, his own indirect reckoning with the holocaust and the natures of evil and grief through the lives and deaths of four Jewish emigres, while I sit on the sand, trying to change the colour of my skin, staring out on a placid sea that is nothing of the sort. ffffffffffff
It took less than a second from beginning to failure. It took a jink of less than an inch for the pigeon to save its life.
On top of the water tower a peregrine is perched on a railing. It is a rare winter’s afternoon — bitterly cold, startlingly blue — and the falcon is motionless. Underneath the pigeons come and go, flying under the arched sides of the tower to shelter inside. The peregrine doesn’t stir, sitting hunched in the weak sunshine. Its grabbing, stabbing middle talon is long and clings to the rusting metal. A living gargoyle.
Familiarity breeds complacency.
A white pigeon flares in the sunlight. It drops low and slow and glides towards the tower. The peregrine knows. As the pigeon approaches, the falcon flips forward and plunges to earth like an axe. The pigeon sees and veers and is home under the tower in a split second, spared by an inch, by the flick of a white wing. The falcon swings up, drifts over, and resumes its familiar gargoyle perch on the other side of the tower.
It will fail and fail again in the space of a second, by the distance of an inch. The pigeons keep coming to the tower. The peregrine bides its time.