Sunday, 28 November 2010

Winter Woods: On The Trail

I was not the first out. The path through the woods show the signs of others who have been there before but that doesn’t matter. I will be breaking off into the woods as soon as I find a track, off into the places where only the deer know. Deeper into the woods and only my own foot prints mar the snow. At a place where I know deer love I find what I’m looking for – signs that two animals have crossed a small field, their tracks merging and diverging as they leave the shelter of the hedge and cross out into the open.
The snow does not fall even, in the deep covers beneath canopies of spruce and larch there is hardly a dusting, along the margins of fields where the woods have taken the brunt of the storm there is a clear line of brown but out in the open, in places where shelter has not been afforded the snow is deep and powdery, blowing to and fro in the strong eastern wind. The snow has fallen heavily over night, these are new tracks but they are changing even as I look at them, covered by windblown snow, there edges flattening and blurring. I find orange snow stained by urine, roe pellets and disturbed ground. I lack the snow knowledge to recognise how old the tracks and signs are, how hot the trail. I decide the follow them and find out.

Winter Woods: Crossing The Beck

The tracks go down through the woodland and meet a stream, wide and noisy in the silent whiteness of the winter woods. The becks run black against the white of the snow, quick and dark, swirling down the hills and filling the rivers. I look for a place to cross, getting my feet wet would not add to the enjoyment of the day. I mark the place where the deer have crossed the stream, where they have jumped up, caprioling, onto the opposite bank. A winter wren watches me from the tangle of branches over hanging the stream. In the middle of the beck is a wide flat rock covered with snow, here I find a series of fresh paw prints showing where a fox decided he didn’t want his feet wet either. I have no chance of tracking the fox on his quick straight lines across the country so I leap and totter from stone to stone and make the other side, on the trail of the deer.
I know this game trail well, it seldom fails. Further up the hill I find small scrapes at the foot of a spruce tree, showing where the deer have tried to open up the frozen ground to find bracken roots and bluebell bulbs. The scrape looks small and feeble, as if the animals haven’t even tried. I carry on, conscious off the noise my boots make in the snow, conscious of the rustling of my clothes, learning to move in an environment that is new to me. If the Innuit have many words for snow then the British have as many for mud. I am at home in mud, my eyes trained to spot tracks and sign but in the whiteness of the woods it becomes difficult to see and harder to concentrate.
I stand at the bottom of a steep slope, silent and still. In front of me is a noisy congregation of birds – blackbirds, a robin, a tree creeper and a chaffinch. Why would such a number of birds gather in one spot in the winter woods? What is drawing them to this place? The blackbird flies off, the robin ticks and the tree-creeper rises and begins another spiral dance up a tree. As I stand watching the tree creeper, trying to plot its journey against the bright sun a roe doe walls to the edge of the glade and looks down at me. I am still, my outline broken by my clothing, my scent masked as much as I can. I lift my camera and take a picture. I have found that animals usually take fright from the sound of the camera but this doe seems to be curious. It comes forward for a better look. I take another picture. It lifts and drops its head, sniffing the air. If there is any wind in this deep cover I can’t feel it and the deer can’t get my scent. It looks straight at me, its eyes locked to mine. These animals see people every day but they are usually lumbering along paths, walking their dogs or making a noise. Here is something new, and close. I take another picture and the animal begins to walk down the slope towards me. This is the closest and longest encounter I have had with a roe deer all year and I have my camera in my hand. Finally something spooks the deer, my camera or my scent or maybe it realised what I am and it turns to its right and bolts. I can hear it breaking branches and upturning the snow as it runs. By the time I get up the slope it its long gone.
Thrilling though the encounter was what I find most interesting is the interaction between the deer, the birds and me. At the top of the slope I find a large scrape over a metre long. Last winter I found scrapes twice this length but they were cold – here I had found a deer in the act and just as crows and seagulls follow tractors the woodland birds were waiting for the deer to open up the woodland floor. It was the presence of so many birds in one place that alerted me to something unusual and maybe it was the birds, who noticed me before the deer, that alerted the doe to me. This is the first time I have been able to use the behaviour of one species to locate the presence of another in such a direct and intimate way. It is a satisfying and affirming experience.

Winter Woods: The Blizzard

With the deer spooked and running for miles I take another turn and decide to try a cover several miles away across open farmland. The sky is looming and threatening, changing from an almost tropical blue with wispy thin clouds to a dark threatening black. Out in the open the cold is sharp and painful. High in the sky a crow mobs a kestrel, which turns and flicks it’s talons at the insolent attacker. The kestrel is half the size of the crows and obviously a bird of stronger will. It will not be put off and continues to try to hover above the snowbound field but a second crow joins the game and the kestrel is unable to hunt, it swoops away – flying in seconds a distance that will take me half an hour to cover. Satisfied at the outcome the crows swirl and circle over the winter fields, flying low and calling to each other. The open fields are no place to be caught in the teeth of a snow storm so I make for the cover of a small spruce plantation. Here, amongst the blue barrels of corn raised on their wooden tripods and the croaking calls of game birds I wait it out.

Winter Woods: The Wild Geese

Somewhere to the northwest I can hear shooting, shotguns discharge like an artillery barrage. I am predisposed to trespass like some people are predisposed to checking their mobile phones, frequently and without thought, but I have no fancy for walking into the middle of a rough shoot. The guns sound a long way off, perhaps on the other side of the river. The sky is already darkening, a blizzard sweeps in from the north, but before it arrives the sky is thick with skein after skein of geese. Some fly over in small v’s or five or ten birds then a massive armada of geese crosses the fields, a hundred birds in a ragged formation, noisy and chaotic. I don’t know if they are fleeing the blizzard or the shoot.

Winter Woods: Down By The River

After ten minutes the sky is that lovely Bahamas blue again and I carry on, down to the river. Otter and mink are found along this stretch but I am wary of the steep snowy river banks. I really don’t want to fall in so I leave their tracks for another day. As I walk through a deeply snowed willow thicket long tailed tits fly past making their high seee-seeee calls. I count twelve birds; they bob by, taking no notice.
Down by the river there are more people; dog walkers, mountain bikers and even a hardy angler testing out the black water. This is not what I want – I want isolation, solitude and communion. None of these can be had with people around. I head back through the woods. I am at the furthest point of a loop that will take all day and cross seven or eight miles of farmland and woodland. I plan my course back to take in as much cover as possible.

Winter Woods: Tunnels Of Light

On the return leg of the walk I am looking into the sun. It shines through the trees and makes glittering rainbows in the icy air. Sometimes the strong wind blows the power snow off the trees and the woods are dusted with waves of air-bourn snow crystals. To be alone in this place that I have known all my life yet to experience an aspect that I have never seen before is a magickal and humbling experience. I walk through a glowing tunnel of light, a pathway to Elphame and the Tole Deol.

Winter Woods: Towards Home

It is cold and getting colder. My decision to dress for mobility rather than warmth is starting take its toll and I begin to think about the comforts of home. The lane leads through hedges of dog rose and sloe, both berries now blackened by the frost. A fat thrush sits sullenly in the hedge, refusing to move as I trudge by. I am too cold to take his photo, it will only frighten him off and we are both trying to keep as warm as possible. The winter woods are left behind as I cross the last fields up the hill to home, the sun shining pale and white through the afternoon sky.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

In the summer of 2010 I was inteviewed for an article in the Finnish magazine Miasma. I am sure my many Finnish fans [....cough....] will waste no time in ordering a copy of this fine publication. Aanimyrskyn Todistajana!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Christopher Walton entered into history as member of the dark ritual Endvra project. Right after the new millennium he started his very own project, which got some recognition in the darkest corners of the underground music. "Hunts & Wars" is the 3rd full length of TenHornedBeast released by Cold Spring. Walton invites us to join the gates of hell. "Reaching For The Stars We Blind The Sky" seems like the point where these gates get open leading us through dark corridors of obscure ambient music. The sonic manipulations are moving crescendo while some kind of martial percussion join in to create a ritual effect. "Hilnaric" is the next track from this mysterious voyage where you get the feeling to be surrounded by birds living in a haunted forest. It's a short, but anguishing track. The icy ambient "Father Of The Frosts" is an appropriated title for its atmosphere. This is another track appealing for some visual strength. Some cymbals are accentuating this evil vision. A few more short duration cuts like "Ironborn" and "Cimmeria" follow. "Ironborn" is an excellent piece of dark ambient with some repetitive drones. It all sounds a bit like a prelude for the absolute masterpiece coming at the very end entitled "Hunts & Wars". The title track sounds like the darkest and most horrified part from the trip. I especially like the kind of guitar effect (if it's a guitar) on this cut. It all ends in a real dark apotheosis, bringing this album to a good end. "Hunts & Wars" is a quite diversified recording moving on the edge of dark ambient, ritual and martial music. Christopher Walton is an experienced artist in the genre, which here again illustrates his genius to compose a remarkable album in the genre.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Genius Loci: The secret place

Once I dreamed that I was the first man to enter Europe. There must have been somebody who was the first to see the virgin forests and rivers. Some hunting band from the south or the east that pushed on over the next ridge, beyond the next river and found a place with no footprints. This dream has stayed with me for many years and I strive to find places that has stood. Hidden groves and secret hollows that have escaped the modern world because they are too far away, too hard to get to or just too small to be noticed.
Even in England there are still places where it is possible to feel as if you are the first to stand in that place. These places are few and far between, lost deep in the hills where nobody ever goes but if you look hard, if you fly over the moors with the eyes of the lapwing or the gamecock, if you follow the paths made by badgers that are the mothers of the paths people use today you will find them, waiting in their eternal presence with their faces turned out from rock and wood, whispering in their forgotten tongues. These are the sacred places of Old Britain. These are the places were we find the roots of the land and the sources of its mystery.
In a deep canyon lined with ancient oak woodland there is a place that is so special it glows in my memory like a beacon. A place that I return to with each season, a place that is always new and changing yet unspeakably old, a shard of the wildwood that once enveloped the land. In this place the river extends its tributaries back into the hills, rivers become streams and then becks then finally small runnels of water that seep down the heathery slopes and into the blanket bog. This visit will be my last of the year, this place is too far to attempt in winter, the drive in is too steep and the roads impassable to all but four-wheeled drive vehicles, the walk across the wild upland fells not something to attempt with the depth of the snow that falls here. Today I will see the place in autumn and fill myself with its presence until I can return again.

Genius Loci: The walk in

To do the place justice one should make the effort to get as far upstream as possible, press on up high up the moor, above the last tree then descend into the gill and follow the stream back down to the pasturable fields. This is a long day’s walk. You approach from the east, slowly and with great labour, swimming in a sea of bracken that wraps itself around you like the weeds of a river. There is no clear track, only a small pale line that threads across the moor, faint and easily lost. You press on, gaining and losing the line, aiming for the hanging stone on the western horizon. In the distance, if the weather is good, you may see climbers on the exposed crags. If the weather is wet or cold you will we certainly be alone on this empty hillside far from the last farm.
I have walked towards this place in the spring and seen ten thousand oak trees in leaf shining like an emerald serpent. Today the green has been replaced with brown and in the vastness of the autumn moors the hidden groves are shedding their cloak and preparing to sleep.
At the upper end of the gill, where the last tree gives way to heather and bilberry, I descend down to the stream. The world has changed. You are no longer walking on the moors with the sun and wind in your face. Down here your senses shift in their priority. In a place where the sound of water rushing over rock is omnipresent ones sense of hearing becomes uncertain and fey. The sound of the stream is a constant echoing babble, water against water, sloshing against the bank, rolling and gurgling over rounded boulders and slapping against tilted slabs of millstone grit. Sound bounces along the steep sided gill, reverberating and growing, imitating voices and sounds that are both familiar and strange. You turn because you thought you heard a deep rumbling voice, a calling ululating voice that rises up and swells and you find yourself quite alone in a sliver of wilderness, in a place where perhaps nobody else has stood in for years.