Altered State

The snow, falling on my jacket, makes minute scratching sounds only audible when I am absolutely still. A few yards away, to my right, the same sound, muted by distance, echoes in a tinier way as tiny ice dry granules filter their way through the bone dry brownness of a hawthorn hedge.

It is 6.00pm on January 18th and the light is half gone; I am experiencing the giddy oddness of shifting, altering perspectives: the snow at once near and far: grey, white curves feet and miles away merge and smooth into my consciousness and force me into a new place-an altered mode of action.

Out in the snow, paused in the swelling darkness, I feel an ageless stillness, but acknowledge only the shifted perspectives of my eyes. Running in the dusk, feet fooled by the whiteness in my peripheral vision, my senses are mesmerised by a wholly altered soundscape: confusions of near and far, and newly minted perspectives. I stumble about as if in some sort of exhilarating dream: experiencing, but not understanding.

It snowed all day on Thursday April 4th: spring suspended. Through a big window, soft big flakes fell through an iron grey sky. Stuck as I was, unable to move in a hospital bed, my eyes were drawn constantly outwards and upwards through a living, falling curtain: a canvas where flakes cleansed, refreshed, wiped clean. To be motionless is to begin to understand the snow and its calm ability to re-write and redress.

When the snow goes, life cranks back into normality: sound swells to its usual levels, footsteps fall where and how you expect and the chance to see things differently fades.

Until, that is, the new opportunity of April snow.

In my altered state: the physicality of an evening run, is replaced with the immobility of a hospital bed ; the snow, inaudible through my window, etches and scratches, sifts and bumps through my mind. I begin to feel a fuller understanding of what changed states can bring: volume on silent; inner reception on maximum. The vagaries of distance and time shrink to nothing: ‘Time present and time past…contained in time future’: a more compelling reality. So I revisit my January run: it’s a route I know really well, but in the snow I am struggling to work it out-I can’t find the gate in the corner, I move, but I can’t tell if I’m moving. Perspective comes finally when I crouch, silent in the dusk-laden grey white middle of a field. Motionless and close to the snow my ears gradually begin to hear the fallen snow, a hiss of icy granules drifting across the surface; it is the sound of a blind, emotionless settling, a faint falling through the universe-a re-ordering, a new dispensation. I will not recognise it for another two months, but here, finally, is an order I can relate to: the sound of filtering snow falling through dry leaves, tiny crystals drifting, or silent tumbling flakes through a hospital window. For a moment all converges and I can begin to make sense of the more elemental truth of my altered state.

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Deep Water

To be out in the Hebrides on a glorious day in August seemed almost unreal. The summer before had fallen so flat: the frantic pace of everything, of just keeping up, of not finding time to stop and reflect. And now here I was: a shining sea merging seamlessly with the sky-a Hebridean day of windless blue clarity, so bright and so perfect that it seemed impossible. The summer’s highest point.

The boat skimmed south – one long flat skim on a mirror flat sea from the drowned slate quarries of Easdale towards the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan. We entered the river of water pouring through the quarter-mile gap between Scarba and Jura and nosed through against the current.

The monsters of the Corryvreckan are not all in the mind: like the unknowable of the deep woods, the myths of the roaring whirlpool are rooted in clear physical realities. There is an inhuman power in the deep tidal waters surging between these two remote islands and, as we pushed upstream, the water brimmed and rose ahead and all about us: glassy and bulging like huge eye balls above the upwellings, moody and choppy where waters mixed and churned…. I couldn’t see into the water, instead my eyes rested on the pooling, streaming surface and I tried to imagine the scale of what was going on hundreds of metres beneath me: the water as a great creature, moon-charged, driven relentlessly back and forth in the narrow pass between the two islands. In my mind I saw it routinely curling itself around the Corryvreckan’s pillar – water-scoured, whirlpool-maker. Here were great movements and moments passing ceaselessly in unswimmable water that would as soon as take you down, as support you on its surface. It was implacable and inhuman, like the movement of stars. Light poured down on us from above and dazzled upwards off the water in a distracting fusillade, but the deep, deep water was working into my mind and I was giddy with the depth of it all.

I saw and heard the whale at the same moment: an outrush of air and a slowly curving grey black back not twenty feet away. Our instinctive response mirrored the whale’s noise: gasps – my five children included – if the whale heard anything it would have been this; by the time the excited chatter burst out he was already nosing back beneath the water, he rose twice more, and then he was gone. I don’t know if he even noticed us, or that he heard anything of our noise; I’d like to think that the deep sounding of his consciousness resonates in another dimension entirely.

Later that evening, the sun setting over Mull, I slipped away from the shouts of the swimming quarry, I scrambled over the jagged slate and found myself, alone, above a sheer drop, perhaps four times my height, staring into 80 metres of blue-green, motionless water. The hugeness from earlier in the day washed back through me and moved everything up a gear-two gears-I caught my breath, for the second time that day, and breathed deeply. I had to dive in! Of course. But did I dare? The slate sheet beneath me seemed to accelerate vertically into the water, soft, translucent seaweed fringed the rock as it entered the water, familiar, but unfeasibly long, as if it had been growing there, undisturbed, for a long, long time.
Something deep within me hesitated: a fear – a huge creature swirling silently in the depths. I reassured myself with exit points and a quick summary of how long I would be in the water. Still I hesitated. I knew that the longing to dive in was always going to overwhelm the doubt, but… I waited again.

Then I launch myself.

For a moment I hang, suspended above the water – the moment before the whoosh and tear of contact. In this moment is all: nothing other than the action and the impact; no room for cares and weary arguments, no sense of the paraphernalia of the day; it is a weightless moment, stripped bare. Fresh deep water – a dark turquoise I have never seen before – sluices through me and extends thrillingly, indefinitely it seems, beyond my fingertips…and then…enough, with a guilty, fearful twist and kick I swim rapidly to my escape point and haul myself awkwardly out of the water. Dazzling light pools silently around me, the ripples slow, still and stop.

The whale meanders through my thoughts: his world is silent and alien to me – thrilling, but unknowable. Briefly he was within touching distance: connected by sight and sound, and the touch of the water in which my hand trailed. For one cascading moment his universe came sliding into contact with mine. I had tried to access his plunging world and won a split-second echo, a sense of deep soundings in the unknown places of my own mind.

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May Hill

Grand beings move across the landscape. Giant elemental figures-out of the scale of my understanding: I walk among kings it seems up here. Nearly two months have slipped past since I was last outside. October sunlight floods about me; the sense of scale soars-streaming wind flings at me in an ocean of blue air. I take gulps, marvel, and begin to feel the replenishment, that sense of being refilled (re-fuelled), that big views always bring me. I am weary and have been convalescing. Mingled with the heady notes of summer are reminders of the coming winter: the unmistakeable tang of decay is led by the pervasive minor key of browning bracken: a swift breath through the nose hits the back of the throat like wood smoke (it never works with a second breath!) and is a statement of arrival in the moment: I am here. I feel it. It is good.

Around me the summer remains: enthusiastic fresh new growth which always comes with the autumn rains, belies the fading grandeur of the bigger seasonal shift. The turf, whilst new and green, now has gleaming peroxide highlights which quiver and shake in a wind which chills the hands. Away from this bold wind the summer returns: the turf is dry and supremely comfortable; soft scents of grasses play about me as I stare into the uninterrupted blue above. The top of May Hill is dominated by its crown of pines, visible for considerable, scale-confused distances. The great columns flex and whisper to one another as you move amongst them: and the feeling is that you have wandered into a hall of kings. You can listen, or you can leave, neither matters. Somehow they communicate with the elements of light, air and time and the conversation they enjoy is insistent and other-worldly, utterly unconcerned with the (slightly over-awed) interloper below. Their talk sounds like waves on shingle-deeper than the swishing gravel sounds of the stand of larches lower down the hill- compelling, mysterious and magical. I have no access to these voices; I hear, but can only long to understand; theirs is a colloquy at an entry point into deep time. As I listen, my eye is drawn out across the blue grey haze: the Severn coils magnificently, silver light from its big meanders shines out, connecting sea, air and land with rivers of light; the great and ancient Forest of Dean dominates the slopes, oaks flourish in thick green curds, above the man-made pastures below which are bare, insipid almost, in comparison. Grand beings slide easily between time and space; aeons pass.

I spot a big falcon and creep forward for a better view, she is big, but I really can not place her. As soon as she flies the dark wing tips and rich russet of her back are instantly recognisable – I have been misled again by the distorting scale of this place. But as I watch her fly and hover I marvel at her size-certainly the biggest kestrel I have ever seen; confidence, authority and mastery flow off her wings in streams of silver and gold; she is queen of her realm and for the briefest of moments I can hear her conversation with the wind.

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Troon Beach

A drenching low sky, rain driving steadily on a strong wind. Set in – a not going out day. I slip a light windproof over my running vest and venture out. Grey rain; bullying wind. Coming up over the sand dunes the real weather hits and I make my beach landing shaking the water out of my eyes and laughing at the elemental scale of it all. Flat simple colours all: dark wet sand and dull beach grass, a gun-metal sea and slate-grey cloud. I turn left and run, buffeted and drenched. The simplicity of the moment is engulfing; sea grasses twitch and shudder in the wind-a swerving line of dull milky green: the thin line of high tide sand follows the curve: three lines of seaweed. Thin, wind-driven waves track steadily towards the beach. Nothing else, just a palpable grey presence overhead filling the day and the rest of the space. I push along: rain-soaked release! A cry whips away from me on the wind: enigmatic and lonely; it takes a moment to realise it is not in my mind. I see the curlew ahead of me on the beach, a solitary easy presence. We meet on the most exposed part of the beach: a bending shoreline that seems somehow higher at this apex. The curlew shifts as I come towards him then hops onto the wind for a low loop over the waves; he returns to exactly the same point…once I have passed – privacy preserved; the distance between us is fragile but clear.

Nothing else living seems remotely close.

And I imagine him still on that bend, content in his confusion of weather, mildly perturbed by a rustling wet running man moving slowly against the wind. And I wonder how long he will remain, but begin to realise that he might never leave me now, I have captured a fleeting moment, held him down to a few desultory minutes in a big wind. The flickering reel rewinds and plays through my mind on a loop in that strange hinterland between what is now and what is remembered. What endures is a feeling that somehow the shy lonely bird is in his element and that I have yet to find my own.

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Ness Glen

The glen is shrouded and shady; dripping green and damp. The water bubbles – deep black coffee; swirls of white bubbles draw sinuous curved lines. The water has a sonic resonance, bubbling from depth, it plunges with a dull roar, occasionally curving back on itself, translucent black treacle, slick and fast. The sides of the glen are vertiginous, disorientating, cool even shade dominates, but the walls of effulgent moss and dripping ferns generate their own glow above the slickly twisting rope of the river.

I look for a swimming section-the river narrows and flattens, blackly deep here, only five feet wide. This is where, alone, I would get in – thrilling thought. I have no idea how deep the water would be here, perhaps very, very deep-the glen perpetuates thoughts like these: extreme ideas of lightless depths. But the children want to swim with me and I am forced to note it for another day. Walking on narrow paths some ten feet or so above the river’s edge, I search for the place where we can join the flow. For a series of impossibly drawn out moments, I experience the giddying symbiosis of walking at exactly the same speed as the flowing water – harmonic stride and flow: disorientating, compelling, connecting. For a moment I am in the portal, a head-swirling confirmation of place and moment.

As I move on down the river bank, the urge to get into the water dominates my thoughts. When we do find the place I walk easily in and sink into the black, peaty coolness – deep immediately, but not cold at all. I find a place to swim against the current and move quickly into full strokes. The vitality of the water is urgent and compelling; on my left the current is too strong to resist and it snags at me, drawing me in; it would love to fling me downstream, but I feel for some reason that I have to resist, I don’t want to be carried off even though I would not go far; I am limited (trapped perhaps) by a desire to retain something of my own control. It is conservative and lacking in a commitment I am not quite sure I understand. And I won’t give in: the children plunge, squeal and swim hard; I anchor them on the edge of the flow-a fleeting moment in the penumbra – the real thing, playful though it seems, is too dark altogether.

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Crop Run

I approach Top Field, it is midday-warm, breezy; heavy banks of cloud, grey to white, flashes of blue. A lark rises, as I pass, its burbling silver song streams out onto the air, rising and falling. It is the sound of high summer, but more a call at the summer’s edge in these changeable, cool days. Across barley away to my left the wind strokes and swirls the pale green ears – endless, mesmerising patterns. I watch from the gate; I haven’t been out for a run for a while and the view is like a long drink of water. Replenished, I cut through the undulations ahead of me; a three-foot wide cut footpath that bisects a wheat-field – arrow straight and rolling to the far gate. A springful of somethings explode from under my feet-four of them, they scatter in a fan, all taking a different line; all I catch is silver, pale gold bars-long tails- a flashing glimpse; I can’t work out what they are.

My stop in the very centre of the field is part intrusion, part privileged perspective. I pause. The familiar roll and movement of my running takes a moment or two to reverberate and cease. At first the field seems empty: wheat and wind. I feel out of place. I don’t know why I have stopped in this place. Then a hawking housemartin skims a long low curve, right wing-tip fiercely down and disappears like a blink; a lark hovering inches above the wheat comes into my consciousness, he hasn’t seen me either; grey wagtails (that’s what they were!) twenty yards apart, oblivious to everything but each other, call to one another from swaying lookouts. The housemartin again, this time beating heavily up against the breeze. I am in shadow now, but catch the sun coming towards me across the sweep and roll of the hills, chasing shadows and wind. It all swirls together somehow: wind, patterns, shadows and sounds. Something makes sense, now that I have stopped, that didn’t before.

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Castle Mound

There is rain around at Tintern- warm, scents floating and surging: woodsmoke, leaves, perfumes. The air swells and the odd misty drop of rain falls out of ragged grey blue and white sky. To read Wordsworth out loud here is to realise ‘… that in this moment there is life and food/ for future years’. The words float out into the valley, reach out to the steep green hills that flank us; they play with the time of the place. In the silence that surges back at the end of the poem, we all begin to relax; it is by no means instant: sitting silently, alone, is an acquired habit, a contradiction to the ‘din of towns and cities’ that dominates flying days. A sparrowhawk catches my eye hunting purposefully along the opposite bank; wood smoke rises through the deep greens of the trees. Thoughts begin to settle. By the time we reach Nether Stowey and immerse ourselves in the windblown openness of Castle Mound the sense of release is palpable. Time slows, becomes less relevant. All around me my students sit, lie sleep, dream. I don’t know which and I don’t ask, it doesn’t matter.

Time and space.

Around me in this moment the space is filled with green windblown golds, dark hedgerows, clear, green meadows. A horse stands motionless on a slope, the shadow of a majestic copse topping a rise is not 10 feet from him, his tail blows and flicks in the wind. Nothing else moves until a swallow flies through the picture and my eye follows his easy sweeping flow. I watched swallows last year; only one so far this time but even just one flicks the heart, the agile artistry of the thing! It is a continuum: different swallows of course, but they have always been here, riding the wind. It is the idea of the swallow that endures, always the same, always here-people too it occurs to me have the same transient quality. Time washes around me like the sea, insistent-a call for mortality. A thousand years ago men sat up here; Coleridge worried about revolutions…and his wife and baby in the cottage we can see in the village below. We have come here in June every year for the best part of a decade. We have our own history now … we add another layer each time. We all reflect up here in some way, it is a view-point on our past and a lookout for the future. Most importantly, it is a place and a moment where we can connect with the present. This thought makes me sigh deeply; I let something out and take a step towards something that feels right, a self-resolution of sorts. A gull soars and watches. The wind streams; I move off with it. The hill, with its swallows, will still be here whether I am or not next year.

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