I went to the beach today, to breath, to be outside and, because it has been windy, to find driftwood. I use it to make things that I sell; mermaids, shrines, curious objects. It was low tide, the winds of the last few days had churned up a beautiful curd of sea trash and treasure. Red seaweeds, cuttlefish and sea purses, spectacles, rope and shoes. All spiked with bleak and battered seagull feathers that seemed to pin this knotted brocade of natural and human leavings along the beach. There was a good selection of driftwood for me to turn into mermaid’s tails.
I found this wonderful remain. Part of a boat, or a piece of furniture. Broken up and all of the edges worn smooth by the battering of time spent in the sea. I often wonder how long that relentless rounding off and wearing away takes. Some of the wood I work on is as soft as fudge, other bits, even worn to the roundness of pebbles, blunt my tools.
Looking at this object, clearly man made but worn out of recognition, into a new and beautiful shape by months or years at sea, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes, from nature writer, Barry Lopez:
One of the great dreams of man must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilisation where it is possible to live without regret.Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground
This is such a beautiful, precise expression of a profound dilemma. The need for people, the need for solitude. The desire for nature, the desire for culture. He encapsulates it so neatly and yet I think there must be swathes of literature, millions of words, based just on our wrestling with this push and pull. Indeed I realised that it had informed my writing of Salt Lick. Though the impetus to write was the belief that if we lose our connection to food and land we are sorely the lesser for it, I didn’t want to propose the simple equations of countryside + nature = good, cities = bad. Isolde, the central character has not had a happy life in the city. But though she finds peace, beauty, she is not easily won to the righteous collectivism she finds amongst the people in the country. And elsewhere the countryside is the new home of bitter nationalism, a white Englishness that festers out of the glare of scrutiny.
Isolde can’t help a dose of cynicism at the idea of returning to the land. Like there really is a way out from under the restrictive dominion of the city. And now, she sees the land as contaminated by the bleak hearts of the White Towners. She sees belief in the possibility as naiveté, a false cheer won by a refusal to look at the darkness. Her weary pessimism leaves her sad.From Salt Lick
There is beauty too in the city’s wild spin. And what an incredible act of collaboration a city is. Really we could pat ourselves on the back for the sheer wonder of it.
Unable to sleep, she walks, out into the lulling business of the night. The city grits and rolls, like shingle. A clatter, constant enough to sooth – with a certain caution, as the waves can knock a person over, the multitude of stones can singly bruise. Not all the edges get taken off. The city hums. A miracle of collaboration. She sits on a bench in the park. Her shadow cast by the moon is kept company by two more, from dim sensor lights lining the path. No one made the moon, no hand, not a god or devil or angel put the moon together. The lights, everything about them other than that which names them – they are touched by so many hands. Metal dug and cast and recast and reclaimed and binned and sorted and finally cast one more time. So many men and women made that light.From Salt Lick
Nature in the end is everything. But our nature is played out every day and is that of a human animal. Our nature is as builders, engineers, artists and problem solvers, collective wild ravers, as much as it is in being solitary souls cleansed by the wind on an empty beach, at one with the elements. It’s a puzzle, this human life of ours. One I am glad to say, needlessly, that I did not solve, or get close to wringing out in writing Salt Lick. There’s plenty more to find, to poke with a boot, to turn over, to collect up and bring home, or throw back into the sea. An endless current of understanding and mystery, sometimes thrown into fleeting clarity as the chance consequence of stormy weather and the drifting wash of the oceans.