Before I left the house this morning I travelled to the other side of the isle, from North Cornwall to Norfolk in the company of Helen Macdonald. In an article published just before Christmas in the New Statesman she recounts her annual pilgrimage to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk, the wintering site for thousands of whooper and Bewick’s swans. Her description of the spectacle is as vivid and original as anyone who has read her recent book H is for Hawk would expect. What does a thousand-strong chorus of Arctic swans sound like? Until this morning I couldn’t have told you, but through her words I can hear them now, I can hear what she calls a “vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar”. But what most caught my attention was something she expresses towards the end of the article: her delight, while watching the swans, that they are as at home in Norfolk as they are in the Arctic.
Home. As a child growing up in Wadebridge, one of the things I loved was to stand on the bridge across the estuarine River Camel and watch the mudbanks re-emerge as the water receded with the ebb tide. There was something reassuring about their reappearance. The world may have seemed different for a while, but at bottom nothing had really changed. Best of all was the grassy mound that sat just upstream of the bridge, and onto which a pair of swans would regularly clamber and there wait patiently for the river to return. When I left home aged 19, the swans and the river were among the few things I acknowledged missing.
Today the afternoon skies are heavy and grey as Paloma and I set out upstream along the Camel Trail. We’re not planning to go far. We’ll walk until the light begins to fade, and then head back for tea. But that will be enough, for this is rich terrain that is best taken in small amounts that can be savoured. We follow a south-easterly line below Treraven Wood and begin to cross the meandering river at Pendavey Bridge, led on by a gentle honking. Reaching the midpoint of the bridge we see there are twenty or so Canada Geese pottering around the riverside. They seem as unmindful of me as I am of everything else as I stop to photograph them.
Canada geese (Branta canadensis) alongside the River Camel
The woodland opens and the water, now on our right, flows straight for a stretch, belying its original Cornish name, Dowr Kammel: crooked river. On the far side bank, the strip of filamentous grasses seems to shiver in time to our own movement, as if it were a sound waveform capturing the music of this place.
It is then we spot the second skein of geese and begin to hear and see their announcement of imminent flight. Honk waddle, honk waddle, honk waddle, honk honK hoNK hONK HONK HONK… “¡Qué escándalo!” says Paloma, and there is indeed a considerable racket as the birds take to the air and head downstream. Quiet returns, and we decide to press on for another ten minutes or so, as far as Polbrock. There we climb the steps up onto the narrow road that runs along the top of the twin-arch bridge: one arch spanning the disused railway line along which we have been walking, the other the river itself. From our new vantage point we gaze upstream and marvel. At this distance and shorn of leaves the trees are impossible, with our knowledge, to identify, yet they are no less beautiful in anonymity.
What was it that the poet Neruda wrote in response to a world of too many names? Pienso confundir las cosas, I have a mind to confuse things. Or as one of my clinical supervisors used to say: Forget the diagnosis, listen to the patient! Sound advice, but not always easy to follow. And so, our vision prejudiced by training, we fill the lacunae with what we think we know. “See that tree there: don’t its branches look like Purkinje cells? And that spindly one to the right: isn’t that a motor neuron?” This is how we bring the anonymous trees into focus, by imagining the foundations of life.
The light is fading now, and we need to head home. As we descend the steps and start back along the trail I think of how my father loved this place, and of how in leaner times he had fished this stretch to put food on the table. For him it was not just a place of recreation, it was somewhere that through care and respect would continue to provide. In his own way, that is what he communicated to us as children. I realize, then, what it was I had felt up there on the bridge. A sense of permanence.
I quicken my step so as to catch up with Paloma, and together we stride out, hand in hand and singing into the dimming of the day. By the time we reach Pendavey Bridge it is almost dark, and that is why we almost miss them, there on the upstream side: six mute swans plopping patiently, one at a time, off the riverbank and into the rising water. A whiteness of swans. The collective noun is right in this light.
Mute swans (Cygnus olor) drift towards Pendavey Bridge
Despite their name, swans of this species are not actually mute, although they would never pass the audition for an Arctic brass band. But they are the swans I know, and they are doing what the River Camel swans have always done. They are moving between land and water, between two homes.
I watch them until they pass beneath the bridge, and then I turn to Paloma. “Come on,” I say. “És l’hora de tornar i fer les maletes. It’s time to go home and pack.”
January 9, 2015 at 01:04
I would like to thank Julian Hoffman for drawing my attention, via a tweet (@JulianHoffman), to Helen Macdonald’s article in the New Statesman, and above all for the inspiration to be found in his recent book ‘The Small Heart of Things’ (The University of Georgia Press: 2014).
January 9, 2015 at 15:01
Bledhen noweth da Alan!
Lovely to read of your recent walk by the Camel, a place very dear to my heart as you know. Last summer we took a trip upstream on a very high tide, nearly reaching Grogley before grounding the boats! I used to fish for salmon there many years ago, but never had any success, apart from the sea trout. I have many memories of birds along the river and down the estuary, such as a large flock of lapwings at Trevelver one winter. Partly on your recommendation I bought “H is for Hawk” and am looking forward to reading it. Keep up the good work!
January 12, 2015 at 21:48
Many thanks, Harvey, for your interest and encouragement. Maybe one day I can join you on a river trip! The bird life on the Camel is a marvel at this time of year, including near the bridge in town, where only a few days ago we stood for several minutes in the fading light of a cold afternoon and watched two lapwings and a curlew stock up on calories before the waters returned. I’ve often seen them further down river, but it was a real treat to see them so seemingly at home, right there at the heart of things. Oll an gwella
January 11, 2015 at 13:46
Loved your latest article.
Hope to see you soon.
January 11, 2015 at 13:52
Many thanks Tom
January 14, 2015 at 19:15
This is a lovely, evocative post, Alan. The whiteness of swans standing in as an apt metaphor for our connections to place – resplendent and beckoning. It was a real pleasure taking this journey by the crooked river and wonderful to see how Helen’s article forged another path that you followed. Thank you for your kind generous comment about my book as well – I’m honoured that it has resonated with you.
January 17, 2015 at 00:34
Many thanks, Julian for your warm words. Your book has indeed resonated with me in all my guises (psychologist, walker, writer), not least because of a point you make in the following sentence: “The difficulty lies in unlearning our tendency toward indifference”. This is, I think, a crucial issue for us as individuals and as a society. During the years I worked as a therapist I sat for many hours with people who had been harmed by, among other things, the indifference of others, with one of the consequences being that these people then become indifferent to themselves as persons. This cycle readily feeds itself, since the unlearning you refer to is difficult, although it can be achieved in the right company. In this regard, I believe there is a deep vein of hope running throughout your book, since you show us something of how an enjoyment of life may follow from a willing engagement with the physical and human world.
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