Saturday, September 09, 2006

Stellar cartography

The last couple of weeks have been less than fun. Housemate Xtin is moving into a new house, and I shall miss her dreadfully. The academic year is coming in like a fast tide, my little red Cambridge Diary is filling up with tetchily scrawled Things To Do, and I've cancelled my grouse-hawking trip for lack of time and funds. And over all these things has hovered an ill-defined but strong sense of anxiety. I've been feeling quite unhoused and hollow inside; a little blind, like I don't know where home has gone.

This afternoon we went out blackberrying. Xtin brought her basket woven of osiers and red dogwood, R brought his two small children, and their small pink blackberry bucket, and we filled basket and bucket with berries to their brims. It was a perfect afternoon, precise as a line drawing, right on the blade-edge between summer and autumn. Stubble-dust, chalk and cirrus. Small flocks of collared doves clapping down to feed in the field margins; sloes in the hedges; parties of linnets bouncing down the hedgeline.

All the time we picked our berries small flocks of gulls passed by, very high; and house martins, lower down. There was an almost tangible sense of things shifting and moving and being pulled across the globe, a feeling like spring fever in reverse. It was a migratory day, and all the birds knew it. Time to move.

Cut: back a few weeks, to my second night in Tashkent, when I had a humdinger of an orientalist dream. I was out on the high steppe in the company of people and horses and dogs and eagles; we were travelling at night, on our way somewhere, under a vast sky of stars. Oh yes, so cliched.

But I got to see those stars. Not with my caricatured dream companions, but in a car, in real life, very late at night, driving from Khojand in the Fergana Valley up to the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on desert roads. Tricky roads. Roads that threatened to tear the sump from the car; roads littered with lumps of broken concrete and rippled with impacted ridges of sand. One of my colleagues was quite seriously ill, and at some points it seemed less than likely we'd ever reach the border. My old friend Mark, biologist and ex-Paratroop regiment officer, would have described the situation as 'a little untidy', I think, with his typically graceful talent for understatement.

But there were stars, of course. It was frustrating to be in the car. So when we slowed to a crawl in crossing a particularly bad stretch of ground, I rolled down the backseat window and stuck my head out into the night. There were bats! Looping over the roof, snapping up insects attracted by the car.

And I leaned so my face was staring straight up at the night sky. It was magnificent. It was dusty and milky and velvety; somehow exactly like a lens, and also something hard and glossy and black, like the polished granite of a fire surround. I couldn't fix on the scales. Sometimes the constellations seemed close enough that I could press my face into them. And sometimes the distance leaned in and dried my soul — very scary — like a finger pointing at an atom. Out of the corner of my eye I couldn't tell whether each occasional streak of light was a meteor or a desert moth uplit from the headlights. Both were frequent. And the Milky Way! Oh, lord. It's a poorly defined stripe in the polluted skies of southern Britain. But there, a vast river. Look:

That's what it looks like from here. What I saw from the car was more like this:

There are
many names for the milky way. Right across Asia it's called The Road of Birds. Or the Way of Birds. Migratory birds: cranes, falcons, geese. Here's a quote from an illuminating article on Estonian folk astronomy (you can download it here.

Heavenly Way – Bird Way that migrant birds travel in spring and autumn. The birds are led by a white bird, resembling a swan, with the head of a pretty maiden. All birds of prey fear it. Hawks and eagles hide in the clouds from it. In the summer it lives on top of a boulder in the North, watches the midnight sun and is fed sweet northern berries by big birds. My grandmother’s third husband, Juri Nomberg, was an old seaman and he saw how this white bird led a big herd of birds over the great sea towards land. It flew so low that its young maiden’s face could be seen and a big tired hawk flew away from the ship’s mast in fright.
Splendid stuff. And this evening, feeling still a little hollow and unhoused, I sat on the back step of the house and smoked a cigarette. Picking blackberries with friends had softened whatever it was that was bothering me, but not entirely. Sitting there against the wall, I heard rooks cawing, very, very faintly. Up in the clear dusk sky was a long, straggling flock of about a hundred rooks. And in the soft cawing was the occasional high, piping call that spoke eloquently of their destination: they were flying to roost. I watched them for a long time as they passed slowly overhead.

The last thing I'd looked up at for such a long space of time was the Milky Way. And I realised that the pattern of black rooks against the sky looked oddly like one of those negative images of stars astronomers use to examine areas of deep sky.  How strange it was to see rooks as stars. Little black stars, shifting through constantly reforming constellations. It was a little unpleasant, I admit. These rooks, normally the most rambunctious, courteous and comforting elements in a landscape, seemed as stately and remote as the passage of stars.

But then I saw, of course, that these moving constellations were simply relations between rooks. They were little groups of friends and families keeping close together on their way along the familiar route of rooks, as they did every night. The parties shifted in relation to one another; there were stragglers, and the flickers in magnitude were rooks playing diving games in the sky. The Road of Birds Indeed. I felt much, much better. What is it about birds flying home? I think it is the most reassuring thing I know.

Hark at the artiste. I've just been lonely, of late, I guess. The rooks made me feel better. Xtin has just made jam with the blackberries. It's a little over-boiled, but it's bloody delicious. Huzzah for autumn. Here's to less navel-gazy posts in future, and I raise a toast to all those birds on their way south.


Matt Mullenix said...

Oh please...PLEASE, more navel gazing! And I'm counting this as your Bird Meme Entry Number Three.

pluvialis said...

Number four up soon, then! :)

Heidi said...

I loved that.


Benjamin said...

I'm with Heidi.


I've been fruit picking too, out with the Pook on that perfect sunday morning. We, however, will be immersing ours in gin like sensible people.

(and, whilst being lonely and marooned in that artist's garret is obviously doing wonders for your writing, it aint good for the soul... I thank god for the Pook, without whom I'd have gone Tesla by now.

Are you going to Weston Park?)

pluvialis said...

No Weston Park: I shall be out hawking near Dengie that day. Which is wonderful, but it would have been excellent to have met up. You could have experienced my special talent at country fairs: getting hacked off by how badly taxidermists stuff raptors. Fun fun fun.

Sloes here look good too. I'm waiting until it gets a bit colder before I make the gin: something too weird about picking them in 30 degree heat for my liking...

pip pip!

Benjamin said...

Mmm.. I quite agree. I never pick sloes til the first frost but we've got a row of bullaces in the field that have ripened unusually early this year (thankyew climate change) and needed to be picked.

Shame about Weston (although I'm still in two minds myself. They're all so bloody samey - but I normally do one big one a year and I haven't been yet.)

I'm back on the road book buccaneering in a month or so - I'll be sure to drop you a line if I head Cambridgewards (what's it like for secondhand bookshops?)

Failing that, tea and sympathy is always available at Book Pirate Towers if you ever find yourself in Stratfordshire...

pluvialis said... should certainly come & plunder the bksps here. Buccaneering would have been more successful ten years ago — loads have shut since then. But some remain, and I can give you the tour! Thursday market is good for books, too. Let me know if and when, and I'll book you a Fellows guest room in College. They're rather nice — like Versailles is nice.

Benjamin said...

That's definitely a "when". Cambridge ahoy! Hoist the Joll- never mind...

That all sounds rather fabulous - dashed decent of you. I will, of course, bring gin and buy dinner. We'll doubtless speak oft before anyway, but I'll drop you an email closer to the time.

And if you ever fancy any Shakespeare (Jean Luc Prospero is captaining the SS Tempest at the mo) then you're always more than welcome chez Read.