Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
Aug. 7, 2022

The Scent of God


Join me this week as we moor on a still August night, under a proud stand of poplars studded with starlight and moonlight. Tonight, we explore the evocative power of scents and smells. 

Journal entry:

 6th August, Saturday.

"The sun is three fingers above the horizon
 and washes the bankside reeds with golden fire.

Three ducks cast perfect wakes of Vs
 Slowly, swimming the channel of molten bronze.

There is something ethereal about this light
 Like stepping from one world into another.

The sun has always been an alchemist at heart."

Episode Information:

Poplars
The stand of poplars

Poplar stop
Tied-up at the Five Poplars

Maybe Cyril
The young swan who may be Cyril

Maybe Cyril profile

For more information about Noctule bats (Nyctalus noctula), which is the largest bat in the UK, there is an excellent article on the Woodland Trust's website: Noctule Bat.

Noctule bat

Photograph of Noctule bat by 'Mnolf' (Rum, Austria)
Source: Wiki images: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_noctule#/media/File:Nyctalus_noctula.jpg

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

6th August, Saturday.

“The sun is three fingers above the horizon
and washes the bankside reeds with golden fire.

Three ducks cast perfect wakes of Vs
Slowly, swimming the channel of molten bronze.

There is something ethereal about this light
Like stepping from one world into another.

The sun has always been an alchemist at heart.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

The gentle sun-dried breeze has dropped. The five tall poplars, like slim green tongues of flame, are inked black against the night sky; flung with a careless glitter of stars. A coolness rises from the canal as subtle breezes lift and flow just above the mirrored surface of the sun-warmed waters.

This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting in the stillness of a summer’s night into the dark, canal-side.  

There's always a warm welcome for you here. Come aboard, put your cares down on the bank, there is time enough for them at other times. I am so pleased you come. Let's just enjoy this summer night together for a while.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The week started with something of a bang. On Monday, purely through my own carelessness, I got stung by a wasp twice in my mouth. Too busily thinking about something else, I took a swig of a drink and promptly got stung on my tongue and lip – it’s ok! The wasp was fine, I managed to take her and put her outside on one of the willowherbs there, where she could dry in the sun. She was soon up and about again. However, it did mean, that all week my mouth and particularly tongue had felt a bit strange – like you have just regained sensation after being anaesthetised at the dentist! Today, is really the first day when my tongue feels totally back to normal.

However, we are also now officially on holiday and taking things a lot slower. We both have a massive pile of books to read and it will be nice to let my mind just freewheel for a while.

 

The bank opposite us tonight is edged with a thick hedge of reeds and tall grass. Studded emerald and azure with dragonfly jewels and busied by moorhens. The rowan is aflame with scarlet berries, and the beetle-black elderberries are showing - as deep and as fathomless as the eyes of mice. Five tall Lombardy poplars shimmy with tremulous silvers as the warm summer winds play through them. Later, in the last of today's light, we watch a group of noctule bats buzz and click as the aerobatically cut and weave around their tops. Between the poplars, a couple of silver birches stand. There is something wholly sublime about the play of light you get through silver birch leaves. A shimmering airy kind of light. It can entrance me. I can remember standing for ages in the park watching it. With the morning light, they shine translucent and watery, like weightless, beads of green glass. After Mum died, I later found that it was one of her favourite sights too.

Around the corner a heron, lithe in his motionless, stands ankles deep beside the bank. His head does not move, but you can feel his eyes boring into your soul. Judging by the constant flashes of disturbed water and tell-tale pulses of rings, he’s picked a good spot. Across the fields, head raised just above a shock of sedgy grass, I spy another heron. He bobs and struts, chin deep amongst the grass. The herons will kick up a fuss later, when sun sets, and they return, barking like dogs, to their swaying, stickle stacked, twigged-crossed, crows-nests of their homes.

In the hedge on the towpath side, Donna spotted a wren, almost a paradoxical sort of bird. On the one hand so dumpy and feisty, loud voiced, pugnacious. On the other hand, so exquisitely dainty, fleet of foot, tiny. The old farthings you used to bear their image. It was a good choice. This one seemed totally unconcerned by our proximity and carried on with the hourly duties of feather preening and beak-scraping.   

The local mallards have been to visit us – a couple of times. They were accompanied by a young swan. Cyril? The cygnet born to our two swans last year and who left in February-March time? The beak was still dull, not blue, but blue enough to mute the bright yellowy-orange that will become.  The plumage is also nearly white and yet not just quite white. It is certainly not grey or brown, but there are hints of brown, dun-brown memories, like grubby white tea towels that defies the launderer’s detergents. It could be Cyril. We say ‘hello’ and put out some swan food.  

 And now a lone female duck, tracks up the canal, as the day’s heat cools. A solitary figure, determinedly ploughing a v wake on the flat-iron surface of the water. She turns at the bend in the canal, circles, and then ploughs her singular furrow back passed us again. She paddles over to the boat, looks in, waits a few moments and paddles on.

A few patchwork fields away harvesting is underway and the westering sun shines golden and slantwise through the ash and her thick girdle of ivy.

The bleating of sheep punctuates the sleepy dusk. Earlier, just after lunch, someone was knocking on the boat side. Three or four minutes up the towpath in one of the abutting fields a ewe was in difficulties. They had spotted her alone in the field, trying to get up, but then collapsing back down. Her partner had climbed through into the field and found that her hind legs were totally bound in nylon twine and, what turned out to be, electric fence wire. Unable to locate the farmer the woman wanted to know if we had any scissors to cut, what she thought was string. The young ewe, bless her, must have been in great pain and distress. The twine and wires formed a huge matted ball, that were so tight that they were cutting deep into both legs and around one of her hoofs. The skin was rubbed sore and attracting swarms of large blowflies. It took me over half an hour to slowly cut through the tangled mass, sometimes having to dig quite deeply into her flesh. From time to time, she nuzzled at my hand, like Penny used to. The man gently stroking her. Finally, the last of the wire was cut free. Her feet were horribly swollen and raw. She had drunk a litre of water from the couple’s water bottle. She slowly raised herself to her feet, unsteady as a new born pony and started to graze, giving a little bleat as we left to get her some more water.

I know that there is very little chance of the couple hearing this, but if anyone listening knows of a Sean (sorry, I didn’t get your partner’s name) and their dog, a two-year-old golden Labrador rescue called Bella – who was once an Albanian (I think) street dog, please let them know that I managed to contact one of the farmers to let them know. Although the ewe wasn’t hers and she wasn’t too sure who it belonged to, she knew some contacts and your getting the ewe’s ear tag number was genius and helped a lot. I went back to the field with some more water, but the sheep wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The farmer I talked to thought that the field I was describing was actually a lot bigger than it appeared and that the ewe had probably joined the rest of the flock. However, she agreed that a vet really needs to have a look. She thanks you for your vigilance, as do I.

It’s people like you, Sean, and your partner, who make this world a safer, better and richer place. Thank you for your observation and care.     

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

THE SCENT OF GOD

On hot dry days it is a joy to hear the turbulent rush of water sluicing into the green-dark chambers of a lock. The heavy timbers creak and groan, the roar of waters moving, playing with the Erica, as if she was a windblown willow leaf on the pond back home, of my unreachable childhood. The rattle of the winding gear, the paddle ratchets, black with grease, ticking slow at first, laboured, hesitant, and then getting faster and faster. For a short while, the entire world is filled with the noise of many waters. ‘The noise of many waters!’

 How redolently powerful is that image?  “… and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory.”

I BET it did. How could in it not? In ancient Hebrew the word ‘qol’ can mean ‘noise’ or ‘voice.’ Is it any surprise that a people who knew the value of water, who’s survival depended on the annual cycles of rainfall – so much that it drenches their sacred texts, so much so that classical Hebrew has six different words for ‘rain’ – should envision their God as having a voice like the voice of many waters? How wonderful to have a God who spoke with sea-song – from the ferocious song of the storm-ridden breakers pounding on the shore, to its tranquil lullaby, soothing and maternal - river-song, the laughter of a mountain brook, the intimate dreamy-whisper of a river on a sunny day, the thrumming drum of the autumn rains on the summer-parched earth, the gentle rustle of the soft spring showers, to moisten the land for sowing – the famous, (malqosh), the ‘latter rains’ that became such a powerful and enduring prophetic motif. How could the earth not shine in the glory of a God who speaks to it with the voice of rivers and the rain?     

On these hot dry days, it’s a joy to see the waters churn and seethe; white with foam; dark with sucking peril. The watery light dancing and sliding with the chaotic currents of deep waters stirred. The shifting rafts of bubbles, the eddies, the tiny vortices as we slowly, slowly, rise, by its movement alone, from the darkness into the light.

On these days it is a joy to feel, if you are lucky, the light spray on the face and the coolness that comes from the locks, dank, womb.

But do you know what I think? On days like these the greatest joy is the scent. The scent of sun-warmed wood and tar and grease and iron-work toasted by the sun; the scent of the shallow by-wash, crystal clear and streaming trails of fine weed and meadowsweet; the scent of hot brickwork and clover and algae. But most of all, the scent of still waters stirred. Deep green smells, cool, earthy, and trouty. Moss-racked smells, dark, and brooding with rock slime and the watery scent of lungwort. Fin-thrashed, ferny, heron fished, festering with the dampness of living. It’s like inhaling deeply from within a terrarium. On hot days, days when the worry of a lack of water is never far away, it is the most precious and delicious smell of all.

Smells, like sounds, are so powerfully evocative and able to produce in us such powerful responses. Like catching an old melody from our past, the unexpected waft of a scent can send us plunging into a reeling vortex of memories that had lain dormant for years. The tang of a garden bonfire in autumn. Passing a stranger in the street who is wearing lily of the valley scented eau de cologne, or Brut! Lavender floor polish, the smell of toast in the morning.

The fresh scent of bracken on a dusty, sandy heathland bright with butterflies, the thick soapiness of wax crayons, resin rich aroma of Corsican pines after a hot sunny day, hot water bottles, unscrewing a royal blue bottle of Quink Ink, the smell of paraffin lamps and tent canvas, freshly mown grass, seaweed, second hand bookshops, rain on hot city pavements. 

 

One rainy day, a few years ago…

I went down to that damp green place of churned earth and nettle beside the cow pasture and the rectory; the bleached wood of the little kissing gate glistening and greasy to the touch. I had not seen for a long time such a profusion of watery green in that shoulder-high, wild, profligate, tangle of undergrowth; as prodigally abandoned and as sensual as a playfully lifted skirt. 

The rain fell as it had for so long and still its joy was undiminished. To stand there, in the midst of this writhing, dank fecundity was a joy too... 

... to feel the rain on my hands and wrists, leaching up round my cuffs, as I brushed the delicate parasols of the cow parsley, covering my fingers with those little black specks and tiny insects and pollen.

... to draw dripping fingers across the scimitar blades of weeping grass and to slide them up the firm plantain stems and over their glistening heads. 

... to feel the thrill of the first hot kiss of nettle as I swept my hands through the green depths of their feathery enchantment and traced, with my finger, the snaking lace-work of silvery trails of slug and diffident snail.   

Perhaps it was the proximity of the rectory... Perhaps it was the sweet scent of cows' breath and soil on the air... Perhaps it was just because I was alive and human, but I found myself thinking... 'ifthere is a  God what would his scent be?'

I have lived long enough to know that for some it is the cloud of incense and candle wax that anoints the altar. For others it is of brimstone and the refiner's fire...

I thought I smelled it once, in a small Welsh chapel, washed with winter sunlight, with wooden floors and the scent of old hymnals and dust. 

But standing there in that riotous wilderness of life, I realised all those were too dry. The scent of God must be vibrant and living and wet; like the scent of sex; like the scent of birth; ... like .... like ... the scent of rain cascading from nettle to dock leaf and of fungus growing on decaying wood, the scent of a sleeping dog, a fox’s fur rain wet and filled with the ache of hunger, the scent of a heronry at dawn...

Whatever it is, it must be the scent of the unalloyed joy of being alive under skies laced with birdsong. If this god be worthy of being called a God, it must be the scent of a laughter that has known the sting of tears and despair and 

... and I set out, once more, to follow that rill of laughter across these friendly hills.  

SIGNING OFF

This is NB Erica signing off for the night.

Wishing you a very restful, peaceful and cool night.

Goodnight.

WEATHER LOG