You join us tonight at the end of a rather windy day. There seems to be a fairly common feeling that we have been encountering a lot of blustery winds recently, both meteorologically and metaphorically. Tonight, we stoke the fire and reflect on the place of the wind in our lives, history and culture.
“11th February, Friday.
There’s a wrapping chill to the air
And the scent of wet earth.
Penny unsuccessfully tries to jump a large puddle.
One some late winter days
The way the sun slants through the trees
And glances of my face and shoulders
Make the grey world fold open into a summer’s evening
Of long shadows stretching across pub garden lawns
And the air is filled with the sigh of collared doves
And time not yet spent.”
In this episode I read short extracts from;
John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s (2005) In the Company of Crows published by Yale University Press.
Anonymous (c.1365) The Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterbury 1346-1365. A recent scholarly edition has been published by Oxford University Press (2008/2019).
I also refer to:
Storm Dunlop’s (2021) Weather Almanac 2022 published by Harper Collins.
For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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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.
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A succession of relatively deep lows have been swinging across from the Atlantic causing high winds with cutting edges to them and, at times, flailing the water and fields with showers. Although, statistically, February is characterised as being one of the driest of months - despite the old country-sore of 'February fill-a-dyke' - which, if memory serves, even crops up in John Clare, but I could be wrong. But it's been the winds that have been most noticeable. But, then again, as I am reminded by Storm Dunlop’s Weather Almanac, storms, especially wind-storms, have traditionally been part of the meteorological architecture for this time of year.
The tragically catastrophic North Sea Floods of 1953, caused by a severe low accompanied by high spring tides which raised the water levels by around 5.6 meters (that is over 18 feet) and which resulted in the deaths of 2,190 deaths in Britain and the Continent, occurred on Jan 31st and Feb 1st of that year.
An earlier low-pressure system was responsible for the south-easterly gale that wrecked the SS Politician on the Island of Eriskay, in on 5th Feb 1941. The Politician was carrying twenty-five thousand cases of whisky which were swept up onto the shore. The event was the inspiration Compton Mackenzie's famous and much-loved book Whisky Galore! which would later be made into an equally famous and well-loved film.
Storm Dunlop also notes that Atlantic and continental lows were also the cause of the collapse of the spire of Chichester Cathedral in 1861, and 1662's 'Windy Tuesday' that has only been surpassed by the Great Storm of 1703 and St Maury's Wind of January 1362.
This last one occurred on January 15th and was recorded by someone who is thought to have been a monk at Canterbury Cathedral in Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterbury. It must have been terrifying. He writes:
"Around the hour of vespers on that day, dreadful storms and whirlwinds such as never been seen or heard before occurred in England, causing houses and buildings for the most part to come crashing to the ground, while some others, having had their roofs blown off by the force of the winds, were left in the ruined state; and fruit trees in gardens and other places, along with other trees standing in the woods and elsewhere, were wrenched from the earth by their roots with a great crash, as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and fear and trembling gripped the people of England to such an extent that no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground, although without much bodily injury.”
He later goes on to add that among the many miraculous stories:
“Among them, an incident is said to have occurred in London, when a certain Brother John de Sutton of the London convent of the order of hermits, a strong man, went to close their doors there, and a powerful and violent gust of wind picked him up off the ground and hurled him through the middle of one of the windows into their garden, where – through the agency of an evil spirit, so it is believed – he was eventually left, without having been injured.”
However, the brunt of the storm was felt on the Continent where it earned the name St Marcellus’ Flood or ‘The Great drowning of Men’ and caused over 25,000 deaths. It would have been small comfort that just over a hundred years earlier on 12th January 1219 the ‘First St. Marcellus flood’ drowned 36,000 people along the coasts of West Friesland and Groningen.
Fortunately, we have had nothing of that magnitude here. Nor has February so far experienced anything approaching very strong or stormy winds. It is just that their effects are more visible. A still day suddenly giving way to playful gusts that disturb the waters. The need to check everything is secure so that nothing gets blown overboard also makes one a little more aware. Even when the winds abate, their effects can remain for a surprisingly long time.
Early, the other morning, there was not a breath of wind in the air. The night sky paled into silver without a sun. I was just standing watching the canal. The surface should have been mirror calm, but it wasn’t. Tiny, shimmering, ripples were moving up stream, away from the lock. Its strangeness caught my eye. The water movement was as much an optical illusion than an actual current. There was no flow. A fallen branch floated stationary in the middle of the canal, unmoving, totally static, but the water appeared to be moving around it, going against the natural flow. And it struck me, that was what had caught my eye. What should have been a lifeless mirror, was somehow alive.
That ancient association between wind and life. So close, that in many ancient languages the word for wind and breath are the same. It causes translators of the Bible problems. Ruach. What was it the fluttered bird-like over the monstrous deep waters before time itself began? God’s Breath? A divine wind? How you translate it, changes how you picture creation unfold.
A mighty wind that is unleashed to tame and contain the terrifying anarchy of Tiamat (the old Mesopotamian god of Chaos), subdued by the old Jewish writers as ‘the deep’ – the ‘abys’ the pre-created matter from which the earth will be formed? It’s a good story. It makes sense.
Or, perhaps, more intriguingly, the picture of Elohim of Israel standing before the catastrophic power of the abys and gently bending down and breathing so that the breath of God, floats and lingers, fluttering as a bird, breathing life into the earth as life was breathed into the earthy, soil-human, Adam and, the author tells us later into all the other created beings.
Both translations offer profound theological statements. The both offer profound ecological models.
Later Christian translators have less of a problem. Informed by two thousand years of Trinitarian tradition, Ruach is neither of those – or both – Ruach has to be the ‘Spirit of God’ – no brainer.
And today, the wind has brought life to everything it touches. The water is alive with ripples, the hedgerows buck and twist like horses, eager for full-reign. The magpies casually ride the swaying branches like surfers. The bodies bobbing and flexing with the gusts. It’s in the wind that the boat most feels alive. The gentle sense of motion, the clicks, and groans and occasional bangs. Sometime, when in the right direction and at the right strength, the wind will catch the stern hatch and it'll rattle and creak.
Today, the wind wasn’t strong, but it had enough teeth to it that made my ears and fingers ache.
‘It's a lazy wind’ I remember grown-ups call it when I was young, “Too lazy to go around you, instead it’ll go straight through you.”
It was that kind of wind that inspired a piece I wrote a number of years ago: Wolf Wind.
Under a sky, bruised and bloodied by the sun and cloud,
there is a wolf wind that lurks and prowls through the wood;
cruel... sly... and wicked.
The sheep don't seem to notice it, full of new-life - not yet born.
Nor the bishop hare, as still as star light, eyeing me
with the eyes of a prophet, from the long grassed verge
that rolls its way to Winderton’s spire.
Fractured puddles, spread like splintered flint shards
the dust-hard track-ways that ring to the heel of a boot
while down at the corner of Peacock Lane the wolf wind
crouches, ready to pounce...
There's a grey light that blows from Nineveh, ocean cold
and heavy; and trees, black stencilled, hag-haired and
made arthritic by the seasons' turn, clutch and claw at the
wild and restless sky.
Down by Banbury Road the rooks cling piratical
to the bucking schooner of their branches,
their sea legs steady, tending the new-life of their own
and winging the fangs of the sly wolf wind.
Wind can be boisterous and energising. It can be the ruach of Genesis 1; charged with such life it feels as if your body will not be able to contain your enormous spirit and you will burst free of every constraint that will hold you down. And you can stand upon a cliff top, spread your arms and fly, leaving the smallness of life below you.
But other times, it is just cold and cruel. Full of bullying bluster that hits you and keeps hitting you. I remember being high on the South Devon Coast path, hanging to the path that threaded its way halfway down the cliff, and that sloped precipitously down to the crashing foam hundreds of feet below me. The wind was unceasing. Blast after blast that knocked me sideways, ripping my large framed backpack from my waist and shoulders. At one point, it tore the waist strap and lifted it (filled with my camping gear) over my head. I couldn't climb up, I had to go on. In the end, all I could do is crawl on my hands and knees, raging in fury against the brutality of it all. Every time, I tried to stand up, another blast would come and I'd cling perilously to a rock or tuft of grass to stop me from skittering down the few feet of grass that separated me from the drop. All the while it seemed personal. The wind had watched me, knew my weak spots, pushed the right buttons, could see those points when my balance was shaky, knew when to hit. On that cliff, high above the churning sea, I knew the wind hated me. I also knew that those thoughts were ridiculous, which made my anger worse. In the end, my anger got me through. I got to where the path dipped round a corner. Shelter and a safe path that led me up off the cliff path.
I think a lot of us are having days like that. Feeling constantly buffeted until it feels as if we can't take anymore and yet it still keeps coming. Up there. Alone on a cliff face. Trying to cling on to make it to the dip in the path and safety.
The wind is not always pretty, or romantic, or fluttering bird-like over the deeps. Sometimes we just need to find a bit of shelter. To turn our back on it. That's fine. That's good.
And then there are days like this one, when it is nice to get inside and sit by the stove and listen to the wind, sounding like breakers foaming on a far-off harbour bar outside. And, at these times, especially when a rattle of rain pebbles the cabin roof and windows, it is good to be inside, dry and warm, Penny curled in her basket or beside me by my chair, with the elements battling on the outside. To leave the wind outside for a little bit. To not be heroic or brave or even just big. To listen to the sound of the deep-sea breakers in the branches of the alder trees, bansheeing along the telegraph wires, and say, not today wind. Not today. I'll roar and ride your breakers another day. There will be other days. Other days when I will stand tall and raise my voice into the frenzy of your tumult in a howling yawp of ecstatic life. Other days when I will launch myself into your arms and surf the razored-edges of your cresting waves with a raven's precision. But not today.
And do you know? That's ok. That's perfectly fine. We need to read our hearts and our minds just as much as we need to read the terrain and elements. So tonight, we'll let those breakers roll on their own.