'By badger light and lantern's sigh, and lonely flies the vixen's cry...'
Nov. 13, 2022

Of cormorants and graduands


This week saw the return of the cormorant which prompts a visit to Ernest Ingersoll to find out why they have no voice. A fairly severe reaction to the Covid jab meant that I missed attending this year’s graduation ceremony so join me as I think about past ceremonies and reflect on the journey of those passaging from graduand to graduate.

Journal entry:

 9th November, Wednesday

“Here they come’
 Like a stream in spate,
 Rolling black pebbles in its wake.

Half a dozen tree-fulls of rooks,
 Crows, jackdaws pouring
 across a skyline of dying embers
 And mauve.

Their chatter
 rises up to me, intense,
 busy with life
 and the most serious of pleasures.

Their words are full of comfort.”

Episode Information:

In this episode I read an excerpt from Ernest Ingersoll’s (1923) Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore published by Longmans, Green and Co. (link will take you to free open access text). 

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

9th November, Wednesday

“Here they come’
Like a stream in spate,
Rolling black pebbles in its wake.

Half a dozen tree-fulls of rooks,
Crows, jackdaws pouring
across a skyline of dying embers
And mauve.

Their chatter
rises up to me, intense,
busy with life
and the most serious of pleasures.

Their words are full of comfort.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

There are two moons tonight; one above, hanging weightless on a jeweller’s cloth dusted with diamonds. One below, lightly dancing on the water. One – pin sharp, steady. The other – blurred shimmering, ghostly. Both moons light our way tonight – and that of the owl, perched in the branches of an oak. Tonight, we float on moonlight.     

This is NB Erica narrowcasting into the darkness amidst the owl-song and moon light.

It is lovely to be back and thank you for coming. I was hoping you would be here. The night is mild, but the stove is on to take away the autumnal dampness in the air. The kettle has boiled, your chair awaits you. Come inside and welcome aboard.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

Golden light filtering through bramble and autumnal oak, washing the study with its warmth. For all its brightness, there’s a haze in the air - Rose hip pastels nod low into the canal waters – as rich as any red you would find in a fairy story. The trees are beginning to change into their winter shapes – lifting claw-like hands to a blustering sky. However, there is still plenty of colour left along the hedgerows. Enough to warrant regular brushing of leaves from the cabin roof. From the desk-side window, I can see a couple of oaks on the crest of a hill – their curvaceous fullness still speaks of summer days and then a butterfly fluttered by. It is only the brittle umbrella spokes of hemlock and the thick clusters of scarlet lanterns on the dog-rose that point to autumn.       

The other day a cormorant dropped by, the first I have seen the spring. They are such a striking bird – a bird’s bird. All accentuated – black vampire wings, sinuous and strong when stretched in flight, a long tail – almost too long. A long neck - almost too long. A sharp beak – almost too sharp. They are the sort of bird I used to draw when I was boy and had been asked to draw a bird. It’s what I thought a bird should look like. And there he or she was. Perched on the limb of an ash, a boyhood vision of a bird in real life.

 Cormorants are mute birds – or at least – have no song or call. Ernest Ingersoll in his Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore includes two great stories about cormorants. The first is why they have no song. There seems to be a fairly widespread idea, where ever cormorants are found, that they either have no tongue or that their tongue is shrivelled and lifeless.

[READING]

The second story has European origins, but Ingersoll doesn’t expand on its actual provenance …  

[READING]

The cygnet is getting more and more independent. I don’t know if it is my imagination, but the parents seem to be growing a little closer together again. Following the rearing of the cygnets and the moult, the male – the cob – tended to spend a lot of time on his own. In the vicinity of mum and the children, but quietly foraging and dozing in his own company. Perhaps it’s because the nurturing duties are nearly complete, or the prompting of a new breeding season, perhaps it’s the near advent of winter – whatever the reason, bonds are being renewed. Company is shared.

The darker mornings have meant that I have been seeing a bit more of the white duck – a ghostly little shape amongst the hunched figures on the bankside.

Donna and I are feeling much better now. Last weekend we spent a few days under the wide Norfolk skies visiting Dad. There is something about the landscape and that light. The fierce blaze of gorse on the heathlands, little villages of un-knapped flint, threaded with excise defying narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards. Where time moves more slowly under majestic Roland Hilder skies. Passing through the empty flatlands of the East Anglian levels and fens with their wide arrow-straight dykes and drains and the crumbling towers of churches out of use – rimed with moss and nettle, graffitied with the local wisdom of lichen – a chapel now for badgers, bat, and pigeon. If I ever woke up and found that I had been turned into a vicar that would be my sort of church, filled with the incense of decay, rotting stone-work, and leaf mould  – open to the fenland rains whose crumbling stone floor has yielded to fescue, ground elder and fern. Each week, in flailing vestments, I would climb those invisible steps to a pulpit of worm-eaten wood and listen to the sermons that ring in through the glassless windows carried on the North-Sea-soaked easterlies. And what hymns would be sung on such hallowed ground; conducted by the heron to wing-song and the bittern’s transcendent boom.

The Perek Shira incarnated on Norfolk flint and clay.

Although, I should imagine that the clerical stipend for that sort of gig (as a vicar friend once described it) would be pitiably small.  

Strangely our time with Dad did end up with an ecclesial twist – a lovely, but equally bewildering saunter around aa damp Walsingham and then reacquainting ourselves with the ruins of Binham Priory. Perched amid the sweeping folds of fields, high above the coastal marshes, what mesmerizingly atmospheric and haunting place that is! A place of rooks and knotted tree roots, and ghosts.

As always, it was lovely to be away, but also lovely to return. To fire up the stove – at least for a couple of days, to feel the gentle movement of a boat on water, to listen to the wind and rain play on the cabin walls.  

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

OF GRADUANDS

Our lives seem to be filled with markers – symbolic mile posts that somehow create a sense of location and placement for us in the psycho-geographies of our liveness. As contrived and as synthetic as many are, they nonetheless appear to prompt in us a deeply emotional attachment to them. Providing the song-ways and rhyme-paths of our journeys; creating ritual cartographies of the landscapes of our life. Yearly markers. Some may be small, personal to us, the birthday of someone we love but is with us no more. Others are more local, the village flower-show, the club outing. Others are national, bonfire night, bank holidays. Others are fairly global. A circuit of festivals – of faith or culture (often a mixture of both). The markings of the turning of a year. But there are also other types that don’t cycle with the orbit round our sun. Stelae that mark a specific point – cultural dolmens. Memorial pillars, the social standing stones and obelisks that mark a particular achievement. Anthropologists call these rites of passage – lintel-posts between which we pass on the long walk of our life.

It is easy to be cynical about these times – particularly when they are fuelled by our culture’s tendency to commercialise and commodify. But the living flames of a bonfire licking the night sky at the threshold of winter – no matter how you package it – always touches something deep within our souls. And, as much as we may smile at the contrivance of mapping special significance on a particular moment – the marking of a new year, birthdays – they are still somehow important. Perhaps it’s the pause they allow us. The time of reflection, acknowledgement that we are alive in passing time. A time of memory and for looking ahead.

In the academic world, graduation is one such ‘rite of passage’ – a ceremony that captures so much more than simply the end of a period of study and the recognition of someone’s achievement.

I have never really talked about my work – although, it does filter into some of the episodes and a couple of you have made a few guesses. I am a lecturer in the theology and philosophy department in a university. The institute I work for is really special. The vast majority of students are the first generation to attend university level study. Many come from very economically challenged backgrounds – juggling full time study alongside work, often also having family responsibilities (caring for siblings, parents and relatives). English is frequently a relatively new language to them. The sacrifices to access education is great for them. They often daily count the cost.  Yet their joyful excitement when starting – their disbelief that they have made it – they pride, the grateful appreciation is infectious. I love working with them more than any other undergraduates that I have worked with. These are not people who have been schooled for university – they don’t know the transcripts that they are expected to follow. Consequently, what they bring to each class is unpolished and fresh. Views, perceptions, insights that can often be worlds apart from the route-mapped discourses of academia. I continue to learn so much from them. When explaining a particularly arcane point from a language that is now dead, one asks, ‘Why?’, ‘What’s the point?’. It is a good question. What is the point? So we talk about it. I go away and think about it more. Now I know what the point is. This is how knowledge grows and people develop. Their highs are high, but of course their lows can be very low and the imposter syndrome constantly snaps at their heels with dogged determination.   

Graduation is therefore always a very special moment in the academic year and this year was no exception. It is wonderful to celebrate with a group of people that over the past three years you have got to know, come to appreciate and respect. Each one has their own story; the personal mountains, the stressful nights of worry, the struggles to understand ideas and concepts that, at first, seem so incomprehensible and alien; all those times of self-doubt, and times of sheer tiredness. But for this year’s cohort those challenges were even greater. COVID-19 hit half-way through their first year, rupturing friendships and routines that were slowly forming. There was a sense of fracture and divorce in the imposed isolation – between themselves, and between us, as staff, and them. New ways of teaching and learning had to be mastered. Ways to reform a feeling of identity and remote friendship needed to be found in a whirlpool of uncertainty and anxieties.    

This year, graduation was held a couple of weeks ago and a fairly severe reaction to the Coronavirus booster meant that I had to miss it this year. It was a real disappointment for me and I had been hoping against hope to attend right up until the night before. I wanted to be there with them. To celebrate this day – this strange rite - with them.

 

Gaining any degree is an achievement. However, what, for me, is such a privilege in working with theology and philosophy students is that for many of them this is far more than an academic journey - that is not to say that there is not an immense amount to learn and information to process. Our teaching programme doesn’t just cover learning about key theological and philosophical thinkers and their ideas (as well as many from outside the canon) from antiquity to the present, but also challenging them to apply philosophical and theological methodologies and systems of thought to some of the monumental issues facing life in the contemporary world. The subjects sweep from global issues to individual personal reflection. All of this can be very demanding not just intellectually, but emotionally, psychologically and spiritually (I use that term in the widest sense). And so, over the last three years we have dug deep into their personal core values, got them to question the compasses they have trusted to guide their lives, looked deeply into the darkness of human nature and behaviour. We have all walked outside our comfort zones (lecturers included), learnt new things and challenged each other. We could only do that together; listening to each other, sharing, encouraging each other to find our voices, understanding and, above all, making each other brave. The class of 2022 excelled at doing all these.

Graduation Ceremony

These are some notes I made from an earlier graduation day.

Graduation day starts early and preparation begins as the dawn is slowly fading. As the skies slowly lightened, a large flock of rooks headed over the campus towards the city centre in a long smoky, raucous trail.

Most of the teaching staff are fortunate as we only have to turn up an hour or so before the start. Those who are working behind the scenes begin much earlier. Even now, as the sky is turning from black to steel grey and only the corridors – strip lit and stark, the classrooms mute and dark – there is a constant movement. Boxes, bags, being carried. Greetings shouted. Vans and cars sweep out to city centre. I have an hour or so before the coach leaves. A couple of colleagues cluster round cardboard cups of coffee. I move off to see if the geese are skyborne yet. Gulls ride the wavelets of the adjacent reservoir.

 

Once we reach the site, we are ushered to the robing room. Next to the room where the graduands (that liminal purgatorial state between undergraduate and graduate) put on their robes, the university staff also get robed… after lots of chatting… and cups of coffee…

Robes, peacock-colourful, the heavy fustian and silks, smelling of dust and times once lived, hang like weights on our shoulders. The robers from whom we collect our gowns and hats, check that everything is just right as the tradition and the arcane world we are about to submerge ourselves within dictates; particularly the floppy – dandyish – doctoral bonnets. The tassel should be over the right ear… or is it the left? Not to worry, my rober has the patience of Job – but with a much more cheerful disposition. He has seen it all before. He has helped the fumblings of clueless academics who cannot tie their own shoe laces from time immemorial. Nothing phases him. “That’s alright, sir. Just a little to the left. Now that’s got it.”  

Final instructions are given as we form in lines before processing into the main hall. There is always a little frisson of tension at this time. The fear of tripping up, going in the wrong direction, getting your robe caught in the furniture, etc. It affects us all. They are not just the preserve of those graduating!

Every year when talking to students about their graduation it seems always to be attended with a sense of trepidation. A nervous excitement. An ordeal to be endured – a nice ordeal, one for which some thought would never come, but an ordeal nonetheless: “What if I trip up as I climb on to the stage or while I am walking across it?” or “What if I get confused and go the wrong way?” They say it as if no one has ever experienced those fears before. Nope, we do! Every year!!

If it is any consolation in my – admittedly rather limited – experience of attending graduation ceremonies, I have seen more staff fall over than students.

The ceremony itself is long. It involves speeches and lots of clapping. But every student gets the chance to walk up onto the stage to be congratulated by the Vice Chancellor and handed a scroll that states they have passed. Partners, families and friends watch as through that small (sometimes highly self-conscious) gesture they officially and legally pass from graduand to graduate. There journey is complete – well that part of it. If there is any fear of anxiety about their future paths at that moment, it is eclipsed by the light of their smiles.    

However, for me, the most moving element of the ceremony is the guard of honour. Teaching and support staff line each side of the corridor to give the graduates as they leave the hall a well-deserved round of applause. After three years of what must seem like nit-picking and criticism, it is our chance to say “Well done. We think you are great and we’re proud of you.”

 

To all our graduates…

As I said, I was really disappointed not to attend the ceremony this year and watch our students transition from graduand to graduate and so I missed saying to you ‘well done.’ However, I know a couple used to listen in to these podcasts and so, on the off-chance that you are listening this is for you. And not just for the class of 2022, but those graduating with Masters and Teaching diplomas – Kirsty – I know you too sometimes listen – you are amazing!
But also for all who have graduated – even if it was long ago and for those who have never graduated, but have persevered to achieve a goal, a dream, succeeded when, at times, it might have felt impossible.

This is for all of you.

We are so proud of you and it is important that you know that. There must have been so many times over the past three years when it appeared that the opposite was the case and that you would never be good enough for us. But we always knew you were, and that is why we never stopped pushing you.

You have learnt so much, amassed so much information that has intellectually stretched you and taken you out of your comfort zones: Concepts that were so infuriatingly slippery, arguments that initially were confusingly convoluted, you have begun to master. But importantly, you have realised that it isn’t all about knowledge and chasing the ‘correct answer.’ And that sometimes questions and the roads to the answers are more important than the answers themselves. In my mind, watching you climb those steps and walk across the stage to receive your well-deserved degree scroll, I knew that you weren’t thinking about which Hebrew or Greek words pose problems to the translator, what gave rise to the filioque controversy, or the different categories of ethical thought. But it is about how knowing that sort of information can and has changed you; how it has widened your world, helped you to see difference and similarity and to find the generosity of spirit to embrace them both, to not be afraid of the other’s voice and to find the courage and strength to question your own.

 

I can remember how you came to us with such passion and excitement, and yes, diffidence and timidity too. And how, particularly during those early days, you were stretched and challenged. There were times when we could hear the anxiety in your questions as things which had appeared so solid and sacred (even) to you began to turn to dust and slip through your fingers. For you had chosen a subject which does not just touch the intellect or furnish you with a handful of skills to sell; it touches the heart and the soul; the very essence of the person you think you are. And I (we all) could recognise how, at times, your compass tilted and span, and those times the Polestar dipped and fell from your sky. How you braved the storm-swells of the Roaring Forties of the mind that threatened to capsize your life and leave you shipwrecked and alone and cast in the darkness. Those are lonely times. Although we couldn’t see the tears, the nights of confused thoughts, the doubts, the fear, the anger, the tumults of the heart – we had no doubt that they were there. But you didn’t give up. And though the terrain beneath your feet pitched and shifted as your world enlarged, you also grew with it.

But this is only part of the reason why we celebrated your joy when graduating. The truth is that we actually had very little part in your growth. We could not make you grow any more than a gardener can make her roses bloom, or a farmer create spring shoots of wheat or a child create the blaze of a sunflower. If we had a small part, it was bringing you together with those things that we love; those questions that stump and perplex us too, the text that niggles us or sets us on fire, the writer that shakes our familiar worlds and helps us to see things anew.

The real reason is that it has been a privilege to watch you grow and be part of your lives for three short years. And you have given to us so much. For it has been in your growing that we have grown too. Just as (hopefully) our working together has left some small legacy in your life, so be assured that you too have you left a legacy for us. Throughout these three years we pushed and challenged you to excel and you pushed and challenged us; forcing us to reach for newer heights. Those questions you asked that have made us go away and once more think through something we had begun to take for granted, introducing us to new authors and new ideas, your choice of research topics that take us out of our comfort zones and acquaint us with arguments that are strange and sometimes uncomfortable to us, encouraging us to identify our unseen ‘other’ and to listen to their once-silenced voice. If we are better lecturers, tutors, people, then it is, in part, because of you.

We celebrate the gaining of your degrees not simply because of what you have received, but for what you have given to us and the knowledge and confidence that you will continue in that giving.

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very warm, restful, and peaceful night. Good night.

WEATHER LOG