Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
July 31, 2022

Down by the Cattle Pond


There is a spot of ground that is special to me. Perhaps you have one too. They often are not particularly attractive, but somehow they are places we can go to find quietness. Join me to tonight when we visit one of my special places as we go down to the cattle pond with the help of Wendell Berry.    

Journal entry:

27th July, Wednesday

“Drifts of mist rise and ghost upon the water
 In the pre-dawn light.
 The air is deliciously cool.

The heron is in the cow-splash down by the oaks
 I climb the hill
 And look down on dawn.   

And wish for rain.”

 

Episode Information:

Hairy willowherbHairy willowherb climbing skywards above the water.

Carp
One of the sunning carp.

Cattle pond

The cattle pond fringed by sedge and nettle

In this episode I read a very short extract from Simon Barnes’ excellent, quirky, and altogether wonderful, A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion published (2005) by Short Books.  

I also read Wendell Berry’s poem ‘A Standing Ground’ which can be found in his volume The Peace of Wild Things: And other poems published (2018) by Penguin Books. You can listen and watch Mary Berry read this poem here: ‘A Standing Ground.’ 

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

27th July, Wednesday

“Drifts of mist rise and ghost upon the water
In the pre-dawn light.
The air is deliciously cool.

The heron is in the cow-splash down by the oaks
I climb the hill
And look down on dawn.   

And wish for rain.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

All evening there has been that frontal feel. The kick and playful gusts of a wind that often presage rain. The spiky fists of teasel heads bobbing in the boisterous wind.  The skies have been heavy and grey, and it has been quite close. A spindrift of rain bullied by the wind began just before 9.00 this evening. As darkness fell, unfurling hissing veils swept in from the southwest. It came in soft, lapping waves, washing across the fields and turning the trembling leaves of the alders into starlight. A gentle noise and oh so welcome!!

This is NB Erica narrowcasting into the darkness of a summer night washed with rain.

It's really so good to see you. There's always a warm welcome for you here. Step aboard into the dry and welcome aboard.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The teasels along the bankside have been flowering, the spiky, hedgehog, seedheads, blushing a misty hint of lavender. Their part in the symphony of summer colours is a short one and delicately understated – but all the more special because of it. Their large leaves, like emerald hare’s ears, are gradually turning to a russet brown. They’ve been attracting a Mardi Gras of gold finches that swoop down, in carnivalling throngs, that makes the air thrum and jabber with their rapid wing-beats and chirruping calls. For a short while they stay, painting the scene with their energy and colour. Their bright red faces, deep black eyeliner, set off with a broad pure-white band encircling their cheeks and throat, make them look like the vibrantly coloured masked Lucha Libre wrestlers of Mexico. And then, with a blurred whirr of sound, they are off. They’re like a group of schoolchildren on their first visit to a zoo, breathlessly rushing, en mass, from one enclosure to another. Goldfinches are a spectacle, whenever they come it is always carnival time. According to Simon Barnes, in his Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion the old collective noun for a flock of goldfinches is a ’charm.’ It describes them well. So does Simon:

[READING]

It’s a little too early for them to take much interest in the teasels. It is a little later in the year, after the tiny flowers have died back and the seeds are for the taking, that is when they become the goldfinches’ friend. Right now, it is the brown thistle heads that attract their attention. The scruffy, desolated, banks of rust and tawny browns are their halcyon fields wherein the gods have walked before the dawns of their time. What is wasteland and unattractive scrub to us, a place of neglect, is an Edenic paradise to them.  I have come to love these unloved patches for they are places of carnival.

Purple loosestrife still flames alongside the water. Sometimes dipping its smouldering poker-head down towards the canal and then bending sharply upward. It is almost the opposite of teasel in that, whereas the colours of the teasel seem to be quite short lived and muted, the loosestrife’s blooms are bold and long-lasting. The willowherb is growing straggly, but its blush of flowers still stands tall. It’s the hairy version, less flamboyant than the kind I am more used to – the summer-fuse of the Rosebay Willowherb that is like the grown-up and brasher sister to the Loosestrife. All along the bankside vegetation there is the pulse and flow of activity. High above, a buzzard mewls her liquid call to somewhere deep within the soul. She is harried, half-heartedly, by a couple of gulls. They soon swing away on razored wings. Some days are destined for battle royals, others aren’t.

The two cygnets, scruffy in their dull grey wool, lie beside my feet. Their parents, slowly making their meandering way down to join them, grazing on the grass as they come. One of the cygnets tugs at grass. It’s a sound that makes the soles of my feet itchy. Like when Penny used to crunch biscuits, or the sound of cattle munching just outside the tent. It’s a friendly, fuzzy, sound. Rather than standing up to reach a new patch, she (or perhaps he) squiffles her body forward, swimming on the grass. The other is busily preening. Lying on his (or perhaps her) side, rolling his neck over and over the downy fluff, working the waterproof oils into the plumage. The longer feathers stick out at odd angles, bedraggled and threadbare, like a dandelion clock on its final hour with just ten minutes to go. With deft strokes of the beak, he ruffles up the feathers, running his beak through them. All the while there is the little shrill whistling calls. I remember I used to whistle to myself when I used to solder circuit boards. Hundreds of them, soldering little jewels to silver trackways. I can smell the sweet smell of solder even now. I often dream about that. They were good days. I wonder if this cygnet will ever dream of these days in his youth, when the grass was sweet? Suddenly there is silence. I look down, and there he is, beak buried deep into one stubby wing, fast asleep.   

And all the while, flies buzz, bees bumble, butterflies flit, moths dance, damsel flies dart and dragon flies flash. Their noise eddies and washes on the loose currents of the summer breeze; soporific, almost drowsy to my ears.

I stop to watch a small bee harvesting pollen from a group of willowherb flowers. He darts and jinks from head-to-head, gently landing in the crown of each flower so that it hardly bends – only a little tremor (as if disturbed by a drop of rain). I want to tell him to do it logically, systematically, not this random chaotic dance. It tests my brain, I can’t quite remember if he has already landed on that flower, and before I can decide he is off again. Start at the top, work from side to side all the way down to the bottom. That’s the way to do it. But then, what do I really know about pollen collecting? Bee’s ways are ancient and well-tested. There is much I do not know about the world in which the bee labours and so I let him continue and stop fretting. There is a certain joy about letting go and admiring an expert doing what they do best.

The mirrored waters beneath the quiet glories of teasel and loosestrife, continue to ripple and sparkle with the flash of fish or, at least, their wakes. The large-mouthed carp seem to enjoy days like these. They hug close to the bank, slowly finning the tobacco-coloured water, sun warmed and tranquil. They press into the shadowlands together, packing tightly so that the great rounded bulk of their bodies rub together. They remind me of cows or a pack of manatee. All around them, fry dazzle and fly, covering the surface with pin-pricks of movement. A scraggy drake mallard swims over. Is he aware of the teeming life below him, playing around his feet? He must be. But he takes no notice, neither do the carp take any notice of his arrival. I am the intruder, the figure of threat, in this scene. I shift my position, to let blood pool back into my sleeping leg, that is enough. It is all that it takes to disturb the moment. The drake, pushes backwards, slowly backing away and moving towards the cover of vegetation. The carp, silently sink beneath the surface, almost without leaving a ripple. The drake quietly chucks and gives a little snortle, as I stand up and walk passed him. He watches me pass, gives his tail feathers a wag – shake out that tension! – and starts to sift the bank with his bill.    

There are two figures walking together on the hill. They are deep in conversations, heads looking down. One holds her hands behind her back, the other, taller, gesticulates. They are too far away for any sound to carry. Their conversation is as mute to me as the swans beside my feet.

Just up from me, Jan is painting wood-stain on a bench. Rufus, lies on the grass, stretched out in the sunshine. These are the days of high summer.

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

DOWN BY THE CATTLE POND

I am here to lose myself for a while. The cow pond is a good place. I used to come here with Penny, very early in the morning, often before the sun was up and let the silence settle on us. Penny’s world, with all its vibrant scents and odours filled with information both new and old, was never dark. She navigated the unseen trackways and journey-ways of anonymous souls with ease. Fox, deer, rabbit, squirrel, badger, blackbird, scolding crow, fidgeting, fighting wren. She had no need of light to see. It was only me that was night-blind. And I would let the last of the night envelop me until it rang within my being.

Wendell Berry captures something of this in his poem, ‘A Standing Ground’

[READING]

It's a special place, because it is so often overlooked. All the times I have been here, I have never been disturbed, though many have walked, quite closely passed it.

And so, I am here to lose myself again, to shuffle free of my humanness and its cares and its weights. To meld with the earth upon which I sit, beside this little pond of grey-green water. I want to let my spirit flow like water over each contour and dip of the land. To leach and bleed into the soil until I am no more. It’s not so much about loss, becoming less, it’s about becoming more, as a river becomes more when its waters join the sea. Merging, blending. We used to think like this once. Once it was natural to us. To live in a universe where boundaries are fluid. Our thoughts were once wilder and freer, more open and inclusive, because we were rooted more closely to the soil and saw how the earth and all the communities of the earth lived. People still think this way, in some parts of the world, resisting a universe that is defined by rigid boundaries that forces division and separation. 

Ahead of me are my two pole-star oaks, one now half-fallen. They are shaggy in their summer foliage. The broken one, a little depleted. Perhaps struggling a bit. Down, but not defeated. I am glad of the stillness of their presence.

I sit here on this tussock of grass, beside the cow pond and let its unadmired quietness seep into my being. It is not beautiful here. If it was, it would be very different. People would flock here and I wouldn’t be able to hear our heart-beating together. I say it is not beautiful, but to me it is – and perhaps to you too. But you may have other unbeautiful, beautiful places that I would walk passed without a second look.

Squint through one-eye and it could look desolate and unkempt. This is ground that has little value – marshy – look at the green-speared tufts of sedge that are scattered around. After the rains, the spill-off pools in this place – miring the area in gluttonous mud that sucks and drags on the hooves of cows and ewes. It makes sense to turn it in to a watering hole for the few cattle and the sheep. Drainage sinks tend not to be attractive. To outrageously paraphrase Douglas Adams, there is a reason why ‘as beautiful as a drainage sink’ is not an over-used simile. Drainage sinks are all so handy places to dump discarded waste. Even now, hardcore and rubble, litter the banks. Broken bricks, jagged asteroids of concrete orbit and plunge. Towards the centre, two old tyres break the surface. They look like the serpentine humps of a cartoon Nessie. 

This is where Cyril came when he left his parents earlier this year. Staying overnight, a gangly adolescent, part adult, part juvenile. The world in all its terrifying excitement beckoning to him. There was an element of the absurd seeing him here. Like floating a ferryboat in a town park’s lake. He had outgrown this place, but I sympathised with him too. He had often been here with his parents, foraging the grasses with them beside the pond. He stayed for about a week and then one morning he had gone. Stronger voices were calling to him. Ones that silence those of his youth and a life that can no longer contain him. I was sad to see him go. I enjoyed his company. But I would have been sadder if he had stayed. This is not the ‘cruelty of nature’. This is just the ache of being fully alive.

By my right hand is a bushy stand of nettles and thistles, the latter just budding. There is something so sublime and unutterably beautiful about a clump of nettles bursting with life in an unloved land. They play in the wind that sweeps over the soft swell of hillside. The air is sweet with cow, and the nipping tang of green water and algae. A butterfly bustles over the island of sedge a few feet from the edge of the pond. The wings flash with the colour of evening light caught in a glass of madeira and jewellers’ velvet black.

Perhaps you can understand why I want to just sink into this land, so I that am held within its soft contours, melded with the flow of its seasons until I am one with the coolness of its soil.       

Of course, I cannot do that. For, here, I am centre stage. Today, on this golden July afternoon, I am centre stage and I know it. There is absolutely no escaping from it. All around me, eyes are watching me with an intensity of concentration that I can feel. It is difficult not to feel utterly self-conscious, every move, every cough, or scratch, of movement of the head, being so intensely scrutinised.

On my way here I trod a careful path, avoiding eye-contact, lest the ewes with their young take fright. This is their field, their land. I hold no rights here. For the most part it worked. I am slowly getting better, weaving a path through a flock without their alarm. Although, in fairness, these are pretty confident. Familiar with the frequent caterpillar trails of people making their way up the hill along the footpath. However, as I picked my way to the cow pond, I was aware of a few juveniles following at a distance. They’re almost as large as their mothers and it is getting increasingly difficult to tell ewe from lamb. But the mothers’ instincts are still strong. It’s that, and their shorn fleeces, which gives them away. They’re the ones on edge, on guard. Their youngsters playfully curious. Eager to explore, to push the limits of safety and their mother’s patience!

And now they group around me, circling me, penning me in. As stationary as Dylan Thomas’ “anthracite statues” of horses asleep in the fields, as watchful as a pack of wolves. The mothers have an almost nonchalance about them though. “I’m not watching. I’m too busy, but I have my eye on you nonetheless.” They continue to graze and ruminate, their jaws moving in almost circular motion, heads pointed in my direction. Nevertheless, I note that they have moved closer.

Perhaps it’s because their youngsters have edged closer. It is their gaze that is the most intense. It is as if they can read my soul. I’m in the presence of twenty clairvoyants or interrogators, reading every micro signal I make to pick up the secret messages I disclose. My life is laid bare in front of them and I hang in the balance of their judgement – and it matters to me.

I am so conscious the effect that my presence has on them. How my shadow is a shadow of fear, not comfort or refuge. I have grown to understand that. But the oracle of the post-diluvian God of Genesis 9, weighs heavily on me and it fits uneasily on my shoulders.  

For a long time, I sit as still as the rock that juts up from the water at a strange angle on the opposite side. There are sheep there too. They stand and lie, snatching the scudding sunshine. One of the lambs, makes her way down to the water’s edge, her feet digging into the soft ground as she strains her neck towards the water for a drink. Seeing her, another lamb joins her. She tries to reach the water, but too timid to move a little further forward, fails. She skeeters up the bank back to her mother.

For a while now, I simply depend on peripheral vision – Tristram Gooley is right, the more you use it, the more you can see when you use it. I am aware of a small circle of lambs edging closer. Each time I move my head, they stand stock still. I may be a source of fear, but I am also one of attraction and interest too.

For thirty minutes or so, I find myself drawn into an ovine game of ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf’ or ‘Weeping Angels.’ It’s fun. One. There is always one, isn’t there. When I was a child at school in the playground, there was always the one. There was one a little braver than the rest. One that edged a little closer. Edging almost right up to me. Another, further away, was moving along the edge of the pond. Distracted by the water, she came within four or five feet of me to sip, cat-like, at the water. The braver lamb behind me, circled round to join her. The spell is broken, I cease to be the centre of attention – at least, until I stand up.

And so, I continue sitting on the little tussock of grass beside the stand of nettles. Sharing their field with them. I am not naïve. I am fully aware of their eventual end in the slaughter house. But not today. Today there will be no death. Today is about life. It is about games of curiosity and the thrill of courage. Today is about rich grass and a warm playful wind that kicks over the hill and tugs at the branches of the pole-star trees. Today we will all live.

And it is only then that I realise what has happened. How our focus and worlds have shifted; this field full of sheep and me. I have entered into their world as they have entered into mine. Each, for a while at least, have become the centre of the others’ world.

[SOUND EFFECTS]

SIGNING OFF

The skies are yours – create something beautiful, something true, something wonderful.

This is NB Erica signing off for the night.

WEATHER LOG