Country diary: nature shakes and shimmers in this watery world


This is a disappearing watery world – always on the verge of surrender to the churning belt of brine beyond the shingle bank.

The path in midwinter is flooded and, standing with my sketchbook, feet like the reeds’ in the clear dark water, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Sandpiper: “… that every so often the world is bound to shake”. This fragile place shakes and shimmers continuously. Nothing is still.

France Woods, to my west, is opalescent in the late afternoon, its many oaks a flat plane of optical greys as the weak sun sinks behind the hill. The water between us dances with tiny halations – lead-white and gold.

Ash, sycamore and alder branches sweep and tangle in the foreground, bone-black and intricate against the light. Goat willows, toughly delicate, dark green and grey, fan into the listening heavens, offering up just a few slim ovals of bronze – tiny brushstrokes of colour in the December sky.

From the top of a young sycamore (her smooth bark a pale, raw umber, buds perfect in their as yet unwrecked opposing symmetry), a robin effortlessly sings the spaces between things.

What am I doing? My left boot has started to let in the icy water and my hands, even gloved, are numb. I’ve been drawing for an hour and have only a page of scribbles to show for it – pathetic grasping attempts to describe and outline. Tethered to form in a formless world.

From somewhere in the reeds there is the muffled trumpet of a coot, and a cormorant slides rapidly out of his reflection to swallow a struggling eel in the open water. Mesmerised, I can clearly see the writhing lump fight and bulge in the bird’s long throat. Low in the water, he raises his hooked bill, repeatedly stretches, and dips.

Sipping water, easing the meal down. Later, from his oak perch, he preens and ignores me (he has seen me before), a strange and wingless biped who understands nothing.

The evening lays out her dark pieces, and I abandon my drawing to watch him: Miltonian creature, winged eel, part of this place, part of this paradise, this world of loss; alive until he isn’t.


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