Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
July 10, 2022

Unfamiliar Mirrors (... and a herring)


 Old stories can lift an unfamiliar mirror up to our lives so that we see ourselves anew and as we really are. Tonight, I will tell you an old story. It’s a story about a silvery day of sea fret (mist), rolling ocean waves, empty fishing nets, and a solitary herring. 

Journal entry:

6th July, Wednesday

“I sit on the bank, one leg hanging down. 
 A drake mallard in eclipse, treads water, 
 with slow, lazy strokes of his feet.

He watches me. 
 I watch him.
      We are both waiting for something... 
                     but what?

I smile, but it means nothing to him.
 He softly chuckles, but I hear only sounds and intent,
 But not what that intention is. 

He could be Penny - a little soul staring at each move I make.
 Trying to read me, as I try to read him,
 Or the sheep in the neighbouring field.
 Or the horses, frozen, 
                on the dolphin-backed curve of the hill.

I want to tell him 'it'll be alright'.
 But we both know, it isn't. 

But that is the point, isn't it?

Neither of us live in a world of fairy tale endings.
 We're just trying to find our ways in a crooked world.
 Not so that others will follow the paths we make,

But that they may hear our songs (you, duck, and me) and 
 Know that they are not on their own.”

Episode Information:

Boat at the quay
Boat at the quay at Wells-next-the-Sea Norfolk (09.07.22)

Crab cages (Wells-next-the Sea, 09.07.22)
Crab pots at Wells-next-the-Sea Norfolk (09.07.22)

In this episode I read a very short extract from Roy Vickery’s (2019) Vickery’s Folk Flora, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.  

I also refer to Sharon Blackie’s (2019) Foxfire, Wolfskin and other stories of Shapeshifting Women, published by September Books where you can read her (much briefer) version of the story of the herring and the fisherman. Sharon located her story in Harris on the west coast of Scotland. I have chosen a more imaginary setting, although drawing on northern and Scottish Gaelic terms. I have also added considerably to the 'back story', but with lots of influence from Celtic mythology - notably the Mabinogion. However, I am considerably in debt to Sharon Blackie for the original (uncredited) source and idea.

Crab pots
Crab pots, Wells-next-the-Sea Norfolk (09.07.22)

Field recording
The waves on a shingle beach was recorded by ‘ermine’ at Felixstowe (14/10/2006) and can be found here. The herring gull was recorded in Scheveningen, the Netherlands (05/10/2020) by ‘Canardo55’ and can be found here.

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 July, Wednesday

“I sit on the bank, one leg hanging down.
A drake mallard in eclipse, treads water, 
with slow, lazy strokes of his feet.

He watches me.
I watch him.
     We are both waiting for something...
                    but what?

I smile, but it means nothing to him.
He softly chuckles, but I hear only sounds and intent,
But not what that intention is. 

He could be Penny - a little soul staring at each move I make.
Trying to read me, as I try to read him,
Or the sheep in the neighbouring field.
Or the horses, frozen,
               on the dolphin-backed curve of the hill.

I want to tell him 'it'll be alright'.
But we both know, it isn't. 

But that is the point, isn't it?

Neither of us live in a world of fairy tale endings.
We're just trying to find our ways in a crooked world.
Not so that others will follow the paths we make,

But that they may hear our songs (you, duck, and me) and
Know that they are not on their own.”

 

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

Welcome to the narrowboat Erica, narrowcasting to you on a summer’s night from waters that are far from still. 

The moon is rounding into her second quarter and gilding the rippling water with silver. The bank side reeds are a stir with the wind, but it is playful and benign. Bats whirl and flit around the ash tree canopy.

It is good to see you. Thank you so much for coming. Come aboard the kettle is singing and a seat is there already waiting for you. 

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

Summer's long strides across the fields and woodlands continue to cast a shadow of colour and noise of life. The canal side is lined with sweet smelling drifts of meadow sweet's frothy blossom, perfuming the wind with the scent of summer wine. 

I love the local names of meadowsweet. Vickery (2019) lists a number of them: Queen of the meadow, airift, hayriff, may of the meadow, meadow queen, honey flower, sweet hay. It is held, by some, to be a fatal flower if brought in doors. However, it was also commonly used to freshen the air and mask smells. Vickery includes an account that reads:

[READING]

The towpath and water’s edges are now flaming with the pinks and mauves and magentas of summer: vetch, loosestrife, thistle, campion, mallow. Just down from here, an enormous burdock is sprouting, a huge fountain of green – all spikes and elephant ears. 

The berries are appearing too. Still green and hard as ball-bearings, but tell-tale signs of seasons turning. Elderberry, and blackthorn sloe. It looks like it might be a good year for sloe – around here at least.       

The sun continues to play hide and seek behind clouds that roar and race overhead. At times the sky darkens with a frown of rain, but very little comes. Sunshine and black skies cast the most beautiful of lights that can make me feel so alive.  

Today, a northerly wind blustered and barrelled down the hillside. The canal has been busy with boats as the season has begun to get underway in earnest. It’s nice to see the movement on the water

[MUSIC]

UNFAMILIAR MIRRORS

Have you heard the old story of the herring and the fisherman?

It’s a good example of how myths work and, what is more, why we need them. 

I came across it, revised and recast, in part, in the writer and psychologist, Sharon Blackie's wonderful book of mythic tales Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women. It's a myth that I cannot shake from my head. I'll tell it to you as, having now rooted in me, I now know it. 

Many, many winters ago, when the days still spun to the turning of the tides, and the rise of dawn and fall of dusk, there was a fisherman. He lived with his nets and his creels that stank of fish and seaweed and the cold touch of deep waters. He lived close to the waters and could read their glassy light and the sound of the breakers foaming on the bar was music to his ears. He was a man who knew the sea’s running and the colour of it. It could never be said that he was a bad man, but neither was he a good man. He was just a man. And he was contented with that. He lived his life the best way that he knew how. His life was hard as a life lived from the waves and stony land is hard and it calloused his hands and many times made them raw to the sting of icy brine.

He lived alone, just as he liked it. Not for him the companionship of a wife or the vivacity of children. Even dogs and cats were really only tolerated, but never welcomed (and none ever stayed) in his sturdy dark-stone house, that crouched beside the sea-sucked shingled harbour bay. Like most houses at this time, it was built with its back to the sea and the flailing cat-o-nine westerlies that whipped their ocean-spray onto the land. But his upstairs, leeward, window was always open – so, even in his sleep, he could catch the sound of the Atlantic voice of sea-swell and wind-song that told him if the day would be good or if storms were on the way. His was the world and lore of storm petrels and selkies. His life depended on them and in that he was, for the most part, content.

His days and nights were moulded and folded around the rise and fall of the tide, taking to his boat whenever he could to harvest a meagre livelihood from whatever he could catch within his nets. This was his lot in life and he neither complained or questioned it. But he knew the joy of sitting in the sun, with the weed strewn nets over his knees mending their tears or bending new osiers into the creels to stop the gaps.

Then one day, as the sea fret was just beginning to lift, he pushed his boat onto the water and rowed off to the bar. His fellow fishermen stood on the sea-sucked shingles with their boats still pulled up from the ocean’s maul. There was to be no fishing for them today. The fret had fallen wrongly on the coastland. The light and the scent of the air was wrong. They were nervous. They watched the fisherman row with practiced rhythm on the slabby waters in silence, until he was dissolved into the fog. There would be hell to pay for some of them when they returned to their houses. For others the greetings would be warmer, the fireside kettle replenished. The younger ones climbed the slow shrouded hill passed the black stone chapel of the God that died every Sunday in cup of wine and a bite of bread and who made hell shiver. And on to the Sailor’s Arms. The only bar on the island. A small room of unlined stone and whose fire crackled green with salt and spat shanties and wicked rum into the fuggy air. 

Each was uneasy. Should they have gone? Were they right to stay? Such thoughts can settle on a person’s shoulders like the wet heavy sacking on the shoulders of a downland shepherd. Even the younger lads, were pensive and restless.   

And our fisherman, with no thought, but the dancing beads of mist on his beard and eyebrows, rowed on. Over the swell of the bar and its tumultuous surge of water that was as white as the manes of the wild ponies high on the moorland of Stranachbae. On he rowed in the strange, listless, quiet. 

After twenty minutes or so, he shipped his oars on the rowlocks, wiped his forehead with his briny sleeve, tasting the salt of sweat and sea on his lips, refilled his pipe, and cast out his net.

The fret lifted and fell, lifted and fell. Never going completely away, but never coming completely back. It was a silver kind of day. It could be said that this was a liminal kind of day. A day between two worlds – neither night, nor day for a man that was neither good or bad. Perhaps, we could say, this was a mythopoeic day. A day when boundaries shift and become permeable. A day when we see the reality of things as they really are. Of course, the fisherman who, caught in this story and therefore not able to take such a reflective long view, was unaware of this. All he saw were the dancing curtains of the fret and the dull glow in the bowl of his pipe. All he heard was the lapping of the water against the wooden hull and a ghost call of the gulls far off.

All day the fisherman cast his nets and waited. All day the nets remained as flat, as restless and as empty as this shifting, silvered, day. He smoked three pipes and the boat truculently bobbed on the lapping ocean swell. One last time the net went in. One last time, the fisherman, settled back into the boat, lying on the bottom on a tangle of unused nets, his back resting against the bench upon which he rowed, and waited. The ghost gulls continued to call with the voices of his old lost friends and his ancestors. And still he waited. A fisherman’s life is a patient one. One that knows the value of the waiting. One the knows where the mind and soul goes in those long periods of inactivity. Gradually darkness began to slowly pool across from the east and the fret began, once more, to slowly lift. 

When he dragged the heavy net in for the last time, he knew from its feel that this time would be like all the others that day, and that it would empty. Never had there been such a wasted empty day. The other fishermen were right not to drag their boats into the waves playing on the sea-sucked shingle. Not because, as they thought, something bad and evil would happen, but because nothing would happen. He thought, without bitterness or regret, of his colleagues, dry and warm beside their fires, or in the fug of the Sailor’s Arms, spitting and drinking whiskey and calling down the gods of youth. The netting coiled and fell like cake batter into the boat. The scent of the sea, weed rack and deep places, stung his nostrils, familiar and welcoming. With the last of the net aboard, the fisherman looked down and there, as if it were a flash of lightning, lay a solitary herring. She wasn’t a big herring, but neither was she a small one either. She didn’t have magical powers – which is what you might be thinking – she couldn’t speak or anything like that. She wasn’t a good herring or a bad one. She was just a herring. 

But, so the story goes, there was just this one thing about it. She was a nice-looking herring. The sort of herring that one might say on spotting her, “Now, that’s a nice-looking herring!” Because of it, she took the fisherman’s fancy and rather than throwing her back into the water – she was too good for that, and although not really big enough for a main meal, would certainly make a good accompaniment to one. And, anyway, the fisherman’s life was such that beggars could not be choosers. 

And so the fisherman lifted up the oars, placed them back in the rowlocks that creaked and groaned with every stroke and headed back to the shoreline with its grey bank of sea-sucked shingle and row of sturdy dark-stone houses, and the black-stone chapel of the God who died weekly, on its slow-shrouded hill, and the fuggy bar of the Sailor’s Arms. 

The story goes that when the fisherman got back, dragging his boat out of the ocean’s maul, and stood in his kitchen that he noticed how fine the herring looked. In fact, it struck him that she was so fine and beautiful that he would pop her into the breast pocket of his salt-whitened jacket to keep her safe and warm. As you would imagine, the herring was not entirely happy with this turn of events and flapped and struggled and struggled and flapped. She was, as they say, a fish out of water. But the impulse for life is strong in all of us – and that includes all herrings and especially those that have been caught in the sea mists of a liminal, mythopoeic day.   

And so, trapped in the fisherman’s breast pocket, she gasped and panted, gulped and rasped until, strange as it is to say, she managed to find a way to capture precious oxygen and absorb it into her body, bypassing her – now – superfluous gills. 

Well time went by and, as that time went by, the fisherman grew fonder and fonder of the little herring and he carried her everywhere. He fed her, protected her, kept her warm on the bleak days of ice and cool on the sunny days of high summer. He talked to her and on Friday nights, returning from the ceilidhs at the Sailor’s Arms, would sing to her fishermen’s shanties of high seas and hardship, rolling surf and nights filled with constellations of stars and starfish. When he was feeling particularly maudlin, he would sing the sad old songs of lovers parted from heart and land. 

People laughed but accepted the fisherman’s strange behaviour. Now you might want to stop me and say that this is a bit hard to believe, but I am just telling you what I heard. That the herring could live, apparently, quite happily in the fisherman’s breast pocket raised very few comments or surprise amongst the community in which he lived. Perhaps, and I just posit this as a suggestion, it didn’t strike them as strange because they lived a lot closer to the earth and sea than we do and so understood that these things can happen on liminal, mythopoeic days of shifting silver. What they did find a little strange was how fond the fisherman had become to the little herring. Nevertheless, they were generally a good group of people and recognised that perhaps a man who lived alone without a companion, human or otherwise, can become lonely and that it is right that their spirits reach out to another living spirit. 

Whatever the case it is said that the herring and the fisherman lived companionably together for quite a while. If there were nights that the fish heard the whisper of tidal streams among the sea-wrack, if she at times, knew the secret ache to feel water on her skin, if her dreams were filled with a longing for the twist of movement from the flick of her tail – we are not told.  

And now comes the part of the story that is the important bit. 

One Friday night, the ceilidh at the Sailor’s Arms was particularly rowdy and energetic: Drink was drunk; tales were told; songs were sung; dances were danced; lovers wooed; the rafters of the little unlined stone room rang. It was a glorious night or revelry and unrestrained carousing. The fisherman, like everyone else, got quite merry and inebriated. 

At a quarter passed 11, he cleared his throat, gently tucked the little herring, protectively, inside his breast pocket and announced he was calling this merry night a day and he left. 

Now it was a nice night. A swelling moon, rich and buttery paved her silvery path over land and ocean. And so, rather than going over the slow-shrouded hill and down passed dark-stoned chapel, he decided to walk around the point along the shoreline. 

At first, it was easy going. The moon was strong and the way familiar to him. The air was filled with the soft susurrations of the sea-sucked shingle and the fisherman felt that he was walking in some enchanted fairyland. As he continued around the point. The moon dipped behind a cheeky cloud and the night got dark. It wasn’t a problem, as the fisherman, like all fishermen at this time, knew the shoreline better than his own living room at home. But, being tipsy and also night-blind, what he didn’t see was a large tree trunk that had been blown up the bank by an earlier storm. His foot caught an angle of branch. Snagged. He tipped forward, sprawling head first towards the sea. The herring, jolted free from the pocket. Slipped into the sea – her home at last – and drowned. 

Old stories speak to us. Lift an unfamiliar mirror up to our lives and we see ourselves as we are. 

That’s us, isn’t it? That little herring! 

We are here. So many of us, living lives we know and feel deep down cannot sustain us. That we live as a people who are as fishes living out of water. We have learnt to survive and, because we can survive, have taught ourselves that we need to accept that this is the only way to live. And we have built our culture, our stories, our narratives, the modern myths we live by, on the claim that this is reality; this is the way the world is and anything else is just fairy tales and sentiment. That this is how things are and have always been.  

For we have convinced ourselves for so long that this is what life is, that this is the only way to live and there is no other; and that to question it, to challenge it, and ask the big WHY is an absurdity. As ridiculous as asking why is night dark or water wet. 

And yet, so many of us hear that wilder, untamed call back to our natural environments. And we know, deep, deep, down that this is not borne from some sentimental misconception. For there is a deep and uneasy feeling that we, as humans are not and have never been suited to the great culture we have created and the values that it espouses. That this is not our natural world and that is why we can never feel at home, at one, here. That this life will not sustain us for it is not our natural state. 

The pocketed herring has convinced herself that her dried small world is not just natural, but the only natural state in which she can live. Is it not surprising, that when she is plunged back into her natural environment, that she no longer knows how to live? Her true natural element has become alien to her.

And like her, we have learnt to accept a small dried-up existence that is devoid of and denies all the very things that are essential to our beings. But also, there are those moments that we know so well when we say - surely life is more than existence, a yearning not just to survive but to flourish, to live wild and free and unencumbered in our natural elements. 

But when we try to return, we find too that we have become so alienated, so distanced from it, that it too is no longer our home, but dangerous. We do not know how to deal with the brute realities of life here. In that sense, the critics are right. We have become so detached that we are not ready for our return.

For we have been so long away from our true home that we can no longer read it nor understand it. We know it only through the dream songs of our hopes. The sea of the herring sings of freedom and life, but it also contains harsher songs of threat and hidden currents of danger. 

When we come face to face with, what Aldous Huxley calls, the yoga of horror - the confrontation and acknowledgment of terror and horror within the world, not just the beautiful and affirming (the yoga of Jonah, the yoga of Job), we feel as if we a drowning in a world to which we do not belong.

Nature is not Instagram safe, the wild is beautiful and inspiring in books, but not pinched flailing and screaming between the beak of a herring gull with the cries of mallard desperately trying to rescue her chick, but unable to keep up with the strong gull wings until she is forced to turn back. And we feel we will drown and do not know what to do. 

And yet, it comes to us, doesn’t it? That feeling that we are fish out of water. That this way of our living is not natural and cannot sustain who we really are. That life is more than the gasped breaths of survival. That this is unnatural and will never sustain us and we can never flourish here.

One day, we might find ourselves tipped back into the great seas of our rooted beginnings. At first it will feel alien, as if we are unable to survive, as if the brute realities will kill us. But we will find our gills. The thing about myths is that their endings can always be re-written and we need to begin to do just that and re-write the end of our mythic narrative. 

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat 506812 Erica signing off for the night. May your night be filled with new dreams and songs to strengthen your days. Have a wonderful, restful, and peaceful night, good night.