Snatching the sound of Manannán's song on the bite of a northwesterly wind
Jan. 22, 2023

One day last summer


Join us around the warmth of a glowing stove tonight as ice once more grips the boat and freezing fog thickly mantles the winter-naked trees. On nights like these, it is good to remember summer days and so, tonight’s episode takes us back to one particular day late last summer. 

Journal entry:

 16th January, Monday

“A westering sun paints the opposite bank in amber,
 Soil and bark glow warm with gold.
 A tangle of twisted roots, bramble brush and rabbit holes.

Eight ducks emerge from the undergrowth
 And march in single file across the muddy slime of the towpath.
 Each, in turn, drops down into the water with a little splash. 
 A crocodile line of school children.”

Episode Information:

Frozen canal with oak tree on a bright frosty dayFrozen canal, very close to the spot where I recorded the dayboat passing last summer

Amazing swirling patterns in the ice on the surface of the canal

Amazing patterns formed in the ice

All the recordings for this podcast were taken on location. 
 The soundscape for ‘One day last summer’ was recorded in September 2022 on the towpath of the Stratford upon Avon canal.  

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

 16th January, Monday

“A westering sun paints the opposite bank in amber,
Soil and bark glow warm with gold.
A tangle of twisted roots, bramble brush and rabbit holes.

Eight ducks emerge from the undergrowth
And march in single file across the muddy slime of the towpath. 
Each, in turn, drops down into the water with a little splash. 
A crocodile line of school children.

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

This is the narrowboat 608512 Erica narrowcasting into a cold January night. You join me on a freezing night wrapped in a fog that has stayed with us all day. It is moonless and pitch. The few shapes that can be discerned are softened and blurred and the night has a muffled, smothered feeling. It is -6 C (21 F) already, the ice snaps and pings as it tries to hold us fast. It's damp and bitter, but the cabin is warm, the stove has been stoked, the kettle sings, the cabin lights shine out into the gloom and there's a warm welcome awaiting you. It's a night to be inside, so Step aboard, make yourself comfortable - it's great to see you and welcome aboard.      

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The ice has returned this week. Not quite so thick as it was before, but thick enough to require, at one point, the judicious use of a bargepole to help a beleaguered swan who had landed on it mistakenly, I think, having assumed that it was clear water. It’s all a little strange actually and I am not quite sure what was going on. He was the resident (if I can call him that) cob and we’d seen him enjoying the bright sunshine high up on the bank overlooking the boats. His partner was over the other side, foraging grass. Later on, I watched him slow make his way down the bank and lower himself into the water, which, in that location was largely free from ice. However, as Donna and I made our way down passed the female, we could see that she was on guard and taking up an aggressive posture, arching her wings and lowering her head. The male responded similarly prompting Donna and I to think that this was not actually her partner, but a newcomer – perhaps one of those we had seen a couple of weeks ago. The male quickly backed down and took off – landing a hundred feet or so away, but on ice where he skidded unceremoniously to a halt on his chest and there, for a while, he stayed, flippered feet vainly brushing the ice. I assumed he would get the hang of things so let him be – I also thought that, given enough effort, the ice would crack. However, about five minutes later, I could see the female ploughing a channel through the ice towards him. In fairness, she was no longer taking an aggressive posture, but I was worried about the male, who seemed unable to move and was beginning to flail his feet in what looked like increasingly frantic motions making the ice ping and sing. I thought if I could break the ice, near the boat, splinters might race up towards the area that was already under stress from his weight. It took a bit longer than I intended, but he eventually made his way over to us and gained clear water, almost at the same time that the female reached us. However, they were both absolutely fine and paddled around together, snortling in their normal way waiting for us to duck below deck to get some swan food. It was the resident male – so what all the initial conflict was about I have no idea – and also, he full well knows how to deal with ice having now at least two if not more previous winters experience. Perhaps it was just another family row and make-up in the most recent episode of the rich swan soap opera!

 There’s been some spectacular skyscapes, particularly in the morning and at dusk. Combined with the thick white mantel of hoar frost covering the entire landscape it has been breath-taking – in more ways than one! There is something majestic about the sight of four mallards, flying in tight formation, arcing across a burnished copper sky. The other morning, I watched four – two couples (they usually fly in couples, male and female) swinging in low over the boats and heading for a very small pool of ice-free water. There’s usually one spot here that remains free of ice. I can’t quite decide whether it is because of geographical microclimate, or whether the boat it is near is particularly warm and/or badly insulated or whether the whole community endeavour to keep it ice free by its continual use – I suspect that it’s the latter – there’s usually at least one duck swimming in it. The previous night had been around -5 (23 F) and so most of the water was solid. However, this little pool – although very small remained clear. I stopped to watch the ducks swoop in, as I generally do – there’s always such an understated spectacle about ducks landing. Also, its fun to watch ducks landing on ice, particularly when they have grown accustomed to it – like teenagers doing wheelies on their bikes. I was amazed to realise that they were heading for this tiny pool. 

Now, I could only tell that it was clear, not by sight, but that, earlier I had seen a duck swimming in it. I am sure if I was flying, the rough and uneven surface meant that I would not have been able to identify which was icy and which was clear. Nevertheless, these four, flew up to it until almost directly above, and with four perfectly executed stalling descents dropped with surgical accuracy into the water – in perfect synchronisation. It really should be made an Olympic sport and these four should represent us!  The archdeacon, who was on the bank, immediately dropped down into the water and swam over to them. This was followed by the warm friendly sounds of chucking and churping that ducks often make when they swim together or are settling down for the night. Greetings given, news passed on, who knows what was being conveyed – but it made my morning.   

For most of the week though, the canal, although frozen solid in places, still has patches relatively free, where there is shelter from trees or bridges. In fact, just up from here, where there is a thickly wooded section, it is completely free and the towpath, although rimed with a crust of frost, is still fairly soft and muddy underfoot. I rest a little easier as any kingfishers that did manage to survive the last freeze just before Christmas, should be able to find plenty of viable fishing spots – around here, at least. The ducks too seem to have temporarily move enmasse up here – during the daytime at least. Walking up the towpath one is faced by a huge raft of mallard browns and fawns, interspersed with vivid iridescent green and, from time to time, a flash of electric blue speculum. More forage along the towpath and in the undergrowth that climbs up the cutting. As you approach the cry goes up from those on the water and out come the canal-side marauders, guiltily looking, like teenagers being hoiked out from behind the bike sheds by school prefects.   

[MUSIC]

TUESDAY MORNING, 5.30AM

Cold. It was -7.5 (18.5 F) earlier and -6.7 (20 F) when I left the boat. The canal is frozen. Its water has been transformed by the alchemy of cold to granite – unremitting, dull grey-black, flecked and uneven. The type of surface you get when slush freezes hard. Even at the edge of the bay here, the ice is thick. Thick enough to take my weight. Towards the midsection, there are a couple of patches that are completely smooth. Like mirrored lakes amidst glacial moraine. 

This is the sound of the world waking up. Bird call. A snatch of voices. Cock crow. Commuter cars hoarsely rush past – out of sight and down the hill into the flat vale we are in. High overhead an aeroplane trails a contrail of silver towards the rising sun – a sleek airborne slug, but without a sense of creaturely belonging. The fuselage suddenly flashes diamond bright amidst an ocean of deepening blue. To the southwest, a sliver of aging moon hangs – forming a perfect crescent shape. 

To my right is a circle of dead elms – Branchless, pillars – arboreal stylos. They exude the air of some macabre haunted grove or a prehistoric earthwork. Silent, motionless, and yet filled with distant, now lost, significance. The crows love them and regularly use them as sentry points. A starling lands, clinging to the sleek white trunk, and watches me. I watch back.

Across the canal from me a redwing perches in a cave of ivy engilded with dawn. I came across the word ‘engilded’ the other day. The definition I was given was “when the sun casts an orangey-golden light upon an object or scene almost as if to claim it for its own.” I like that. I could have used ‘engilded’ every morning this week and it is perfect for here, now. A solitary redwing – although redwings seem to be everywhere this morning – flowing clouds of them, busying among the oaks and the hawthorns. Stefan Buczacki notes that ‘redwing’ is a relatively new name for them (first appearing only as late as the seventeenth century) – previously their names tended to reflect their song rather than colour; swinepipe, whin thrush, wining pipe – their song, rather unfairly has been described as a whine. But its this one solitary redwing engilded in glory in the enormity of this particular sunrise that captivates me. A couple of yards further on down the towpath, an agile squirrel climbs over a little wooden gate with fluid, serpentine ease. Her lithe body flowing rather than moving. However, my eyes are continuously drawn back to this little figure of a redwing, perched on a haggard branch of hawthorn – I think it is hawthorn – in a little nook of ivy in the sunshine of a new morning. Her eyes glitter black with each tiny, almost imperceptible, movement of her head. I give up looking around – even when mutually startled by a blackbird whose head thrusts through the buckthorn I am sitting beside – we both weren’t expecting to encounter the other. Everything else begins to merge into haze and the world comprises the feeling of the sun on my back, the sharp ozoney smell of frost and ice, the sun’s engilding of this cluster of dead willowherb, the raw numbness spreading up my fingers and this one redwing. We both sit, still, in some somatic bliss, encountering this one dawn, its light, its warmth, its transformation of this cold, icy world. Both watching this sun climb into the sky. And I realise with such sudden clarity that in some way I feel connected – a kinship even – with this little feathered soul that weighs just a couple of ounces sitting in a cave of ivy – that whatever separates us, makes us different, we are connected by our shared experience of sitting and letting this warmth, this light, penetrate deeply within us.      

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

ONE DAY LAST SUMMER

Last year, as summer was very slowly beginning to ease into autumn – more in the way of some vague feeling that floated in the air, a sort of sigh – part wistful, part grateful - a quietness that was beginning to descend upon the landscape than in anything concrete. The trees, for the most part, were still holding their colours, the fields still lay in their sandy whites of the burning summer – swallows still clustered in the trees before gracefully diving into the great ocean-sea of the air. The canal banks still blossomed with the reds and mauves, blues and oranges of campions, loosestrife vetch. Willowherb, and balsams. The towpath still lay rock hard and dusty, but fruit was now as plentiful as flowers and there was that gentle end of term feeling everywhere. A sense of things drawing to a close, the travails – the blistering heat, the drought, the battering rains of summer – having been well and truly met, a job well done and the welcome rest of winter rain and chill ahead. The worlds sap was beginning to flow back down into the safety of the earth. 

And so, it was on one of these days last summer that I took my sound recorder with me to see what I could find, because I knew that there would be days like these. Days when the chill grip of winter fog would hang heavily on the woods and fields, wrapping tree tops in swathes of damp mist. Days when the very air is pearled with drifting dewdrops and the horizon of the world shrinks to the next corner. Days when the frost refuses to lift and ice layers upon ice, and the fingers burn, and noses run, and bones ache. When, no matter how much the cool and the wet is to be welcomed at the end of a long summer, there is the feeling that warmth and light is still a long way off, and the dream of once more stretching out upon the grass and looking up at the perfect globe of a dandelion clock beside your head seems to be just that an unlikely, impracticable dream. And so I thought, one day, during this coming winter, we will be grateful for a little bit of summer, to revisit the days of colour and warmth, days when our shoulders are not hunched and heavy with thick clothing. That we might be grateful of the reminder that summer will come again and that we are just part of this great seasonal wheel. The one thing that has struck me this week from my ‘Tuesday Morning, 5.30am’ times, is that just about everything around is so better attuned to the great arc of this wheel, than we are. Even though, on first sight, all one can see is dormancy and die-back, on closer inspection, it is far from the case. The bare trees and hedgerows, the sweep of crows, the flutter rags of willowherb, the rusted-wire spikes of sorrel, the bristly, seared and drooping silvered leaves of the rabbit-grazed thistle are all, in fact, even now, living in Spring. Drawing strength in their dormancy to light that green fuse that will make their buds burst into life, replenishing energy for new shoots, new life. Some days may pose particular challenges that will need to be overcome, as we have seen over this past week, but the movement is forward into Spring. At the beginning of the week, I made my way over to the pole-star oaks. They needed no reminder, unlike me, that Spring would one day come again and the world would one day, again, be warm and filled with light and the hum of insect wings, for Spring already flows deep within them – it waits, expectant, sensing light, testing the temperature, in every cluster of buds that decorate each of their branches. 

We, on the other hand, have drifted further away from the reassurance of these cycles, and need a little more help. Reminders that these damp grey days that gnaw into the bones will pass. And so I thought, if I could capture the soundscapes of an anonymous summer day and lock them away in a digital file, then, when, in the depths of winter when we need it the most, I can take them out and once again we can remember again, that these days won’t last forever, and remind ourselves of the days of light and summer sunshine. 

The sun is out. It is warm, the air is busy with insects. To our left is the sheep pasture. In the middle of the field stands a noble oak tree, much loved by the crow family. When they are not around, starlings, blackbirds and thrush use it as staging posts, or places just to perch and look down on the fields now beginning to return to green. Beside us, at the edge of the field trees and shrubbery line the fence. The vegetation is thick and cool – even in the baking summer heat, this was a good place to be – to gentle push your hands into the fresh dark green undergrowth and feel the dampness of the soil and the supple stems. Ivy, bramble, cow-parsley, sorrel, dock and nettle, a rich and welcoming jungle the haunt of the busy tiny wren, round and bustling. The blackberries, plump and glistening, are ripe for the picking. To our right lies the canal, almost olive in colour, the level, still a little low, but slowly replenishing. The water is still – just a faint ripple from whispers of a breeze that rattle the reed stalks and brush through the rich green spear-like flag leaves. In places, unsheltered by trees, the sun catches the surface and sparkles flash and dance. Bees hum and ponder, darting haphazardly from flower head to flower head – bees’ algorithms are as baffling as any you will find running social media. Constellations of butterflies bathe in the sunshine, wings open in the sun. It is hard not to share in their contentment, this tiny moment in their life, when everything pauses and all that matters is the feeling of warmth gently suffusing into old wings. Damsel and dragonflies dart like brilliant comets in a green universe. 

A moorhen carefully picks her way among the roots that lie just below the surface on the opposite bank. A small group of ducks drift in the centre of the canal where the sun spangled waters flash and cast them into silhouettes. One drake raises himself up and flaps his wings sending a rainbow of water droplets into the air. Technicolour flash in a monochrome film. 

Behind us is a bridge. Its red-bricks are warm – like old-fashioned water bottles. They feel gritty and friendly to the touch. It is hard not to touch old bricks in the sunshine. 

It's the sort of day to breathe in deeply and relax. Above us tower the parade of oaks and a couple of ash. Their canopies reaching out across the water, dappling the dusty towpath with flickering shadows. In the air there’s the smell of warm bark, soil, a green floral note of thick vegetation, and most of all of life – the sweetness of grazing sheep. The sort of the day to flow with the rhythms that flow down the canal – summer is drawing to a close, winter’s rest and restoration is coming. Rooks wheel and exult in this day of days. This day of last summer. 

Round the corner, hidden by a leaning oak whose roots, reach down and trip up the canal waters as the pass, a small narrowboat comes. It’s one of the day hire boats. Big windows, an open bow, and a galley to make drinks and prepare picnics. The boat passes through a wooded cutting. She will have just started her journey a little further up. It takes a bit of time to get used to handling a boat, even a small one, especially a small one – shorter narrowboats can be trickier to handle than longer ones.  

There’s no hurry for them or us. It’s late summer time to take things a bit easier. To watch the sun on water, feel the breeze, enjoy the feeling of cool leaves on your fingers. 

Voices, human voices, mingle with a hundred and more other voices. 

There’s three people on the day boat. Two adults and a little girl. The girl is in the bow, in the cabin section a couple of party banners hang and some birthday cards are displayed on the table. The woman is at the tiller, the man is with her, they happily chat. The girl studies the canal bank and the water flowing past in a small v-shaped wake. It gently laps and slaps at the roots on the other bank. This side, it is embraced and stopped by the reeds. I hope it’s a birthday to remember – this one, this day in the later summer sunshine, on the canal in a little boat moving slowly through a world rich with life. The bridge up ahead is very narrow. A narrowboat can get through, but it takes practice. There’s about an inch or so spare each side. It’s like threading a needle. This will be their second bridge since starting out. There’ll be three more before they turn round – or wind. At first, it looks as if trying to get a boat through a bridge this narrow is impossible. 

I purposely appear not to be watching – gongoozling. This is their day and there is nothing worse than the added pressure of doing something difficult when being watched. Besides, the butterflies continue to sun themselves and the bees continue to dance their way across the flower heads and the crows clearly have other news to proclaim and air currents to soar, and the sheep have grass to chew and growing lambs to watch. 

And then they are under the bridge and gone. 

Happy birthday little girl, whoever you are. I hope you will never lose the magic of this day. I hope that you will always take this day with you. This one day, last summer.           

SIGNING OFF

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

WEATHER LOG