Improvising the Apocalypse


the seventh seal

‘Maybe art is the home we’re always building for ourselves, somewhere between the stark truths of the world as it is and our longing for the world as we dream it.’                                                       John Luther Adams, ‘Winter Music, Composing the North’ (2004)

The Coronavirus pandemic rolls remorselessly on. It’s been a time of missed gigs, funerals, festivals, dates, classes, meetings, gatherings, people coming round, exhibitions, meals out, dancing, theatre visits, pub sessions, long-distance walks and journeys away. I haven’t touched another human being for eighteen weeks, but I’m one of the lucky ones. My health is fine. I keep in touch with friends and family. I stay active, retain my appetite for life. I have work and can do it from home, plenty of food in the fridge, plenty of books on the shelves, a decent bike in the garage, and plenty of tread left on the soles of my walking boots.

The pandemic is an ‘apocalypse’ in the sense of things being uncovered or revealed. It’s become clearer what kind of work and workers really matter; how racism and the legacy of our colonial past persist; how lockdown makes home more of a nightmare for victims of domestic violence and abuse; how polluted our air usually is; and how mediocre and shameless some of our leaders are .

Some see this time as a ‘humbling’, when we have been cut down to size, our plans, our sense of security, our adventures, our fantasy projections of ourselves all confounded. No longer consumer-masters of the universe, we realise that we’re not actually in control, and that we have to learn to treat the forces of nature with respect. The Yanomami people of the Amazon, themselves great respecters of nature, call people from outside the forest ‘epidemic beings’ for the lethal diseases we bring to them. Now the epidemic beings are coming for us.

We’re supposed to be getting back to ‘normal’ again, but you sense in your bones that it’s all going to be much more complicated than that, that we will not be simply returning to the way things were before. I’m struck by how many people do not know what to make of the pandemic. Instead, it feels like a time to observe, take stock, try to understand, to improvise a way forward.

The canvass of our lives is smaller, but perhaps we are also more open to our immediate surroundings, to our homes, as never before. The composer John Luther Adams argued that art is, ‘the home we’re always building for ourselves, somewhere between the stark truths of the world as it is and our longing for the world as we dream it.’ Maybe, as we each improvise our response to the pandemic, we need to make our home artfully in this way, being grounded and pragmatic, but also looking to transcend the situation we face and follow our dreams.

Adams went off to immerse himself in the wilds of Alaska in the 1970s, seeking to make art that expressed, ‘the larger fabric of life – the life of the individual, the life of the community, the life of the land, and the life of the animals and spirits that inhabit this place’. This way of seeing life on many levels is one that speaks to the heart and the soul, not just the head. Maybe that’s the kind of thinking we especially need now.

On an individual level, I found the pandemic overwhelming at the start. I worried about my own health and had a wider a sense that the world might be falling apart. I was still coming to terms with the recent loss of my mother, but found her reassuring presence in memories and imagined conversations. There was comfort in items that I had kept when we emptied her home before Coronavirus outbreak: photographs, household ornaments, an old biscuit tin, a soft towel and two remaining bars of soap from a multipack of four. In a time when regular hand washing was required, the inheritance of two bars of soap felt like an ancestor’s act of care.

Interaction with friends and family became much more limited and digital, but also more precious, and then my social life became a series of walks, usually in my favourite local woodland. There was more time to read, to reflect, to walk, to rest, to garden. Most importantly, I found myself questioning what really matters, and to think about what I really want to do with my ‘one wild and precious life’, as Mary Oliver put it. Some things that I thought were important stopped being so; other things grew in importance. I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Drawing on her Native American traditions and her knowledge of botany, she asks us to reflect on what our gifts and privileges are, and how we can use them responsibly in the service of life and the people. I’m still thinking about what that could mean for me.

One day, sitting and talking on a local beach with a furloughed friend, looking out to sea, came the shared realisation that life is too short and too precious not to do the things you really care about and love. Life is not just about responsibilities; it’s also about dreams and longings. For me, that means loved ones, music, words, nature, Iberian and Latin American culture, and walking for miles on a windy hilltop on my way to a hot shower, clean clothes, company, beer, food and a bed where I will sleep like a well-loved child.

Community life bloomed where I live during the lockdown. Suddenly neighbours in my road were saying hello, rather than averting their gaze. The Thursday ‘clap for carers’ became something of a weekly neighbourhood event, buoying the spirits on cold spring nights. Our new WhatsApp group became a hub of mutual concern, offers of help, sharing of useful information and snippets of gossip, and home to an endless stream of pet photos. But, like a Covid-19 deaths curve, the levels of enthusiasm now seem to be bottoming out. There are fewer interactions and the flow of cats and dogs has run dry. Maybe there’ll be a ‘second wave’ to coincide with a new Coronavirus outbreak in the autumn. In the meantime, we’re all a lot happier to see each other and know more about the life that goes on behind the blinds and net curtains.

What of the land, the animals and the spirits of the place where I live? Well, the land and the animals enjoyed a bit of a breather (literally) during the peak of the lockdown, given improvements to air quality, and it’s just been announced that, after an absence of 6,000 years, bison are being reintroduced to that favourite woodland of mine, the one where I go walking with friends. Pine martens are also being brought back to the woods, and it seems to have been a good year for visiting red kites and breeding nightingales. I don’t know about the spirits that inhabit this place. They don’t reveal themselves to me much, but I do feel something special every time I see a red kite, whistling, angel-like in the sky above, or hear the nightingales sing.

So, as the epidemic beings assail us, I haven’t found any answers to the questions that we’re all grappling with. This feels more a time for observing the unfolding situation and improvising our way through, living artfully and making our home between the stark truths and our dreams and longings, balancing pragmatism with a sense of responsibility and trying to do the right thing.

Maybe it’s useful at this time to reflect on Antonius Block, the medieval knight played by Max von Sydow, in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. Block returned disillusioned from the crusades to a plague-ridden Sweden, prolonging his life for a while by stringing Death along in a game of chess. His final act, before succumbing to the deadly bacterium, was to help his younger fellow travellers and their baby escape. He made sense of his life in the end by acting for others with hope for the future. But, by that time, he had also followed his dreams and longings, and tried to make the most of his one wild and precious life.

Elsewhere, Otherwise

2019-06-12 11.06.07

I walked by layered sea-rock strata
Up slip-stone tracks, copper-needled forest ways
Through remnant Cantabrian holm oak groves
And endless stands of Monterrey Pine
Thriving where black kites ride thermals, stopping time
Elsewhere clear cut, earth deep furrowed, air resinous
Or pine pitch cankered, defoliate, in dieback
Canicule, ola de calor: the world is burning
No hope, no horizon

But on the trail, the horizon is slate-blue sea
Distant turbines on Mount Oiz, dancing like Bergman’s newly dead
The caves, rocks, stacked biota of Ereñozar
I have found my elsewhere, my otherwise
Where music is what feelings sound like
Love will follow loss, love will follow grief
And there is always a cool breeze from the west
Around the curve, over the brow of the next hill

On my return, the place is in me, all over me
Like someone more there after a farewell embrace
A final kiss on the forehead
Animal totems scratched in original darkness
And I can’t forget the sea and the air at the Wind Comb
That caress, soothe and heal
Wash rid lies and complexity
Feel like home

(June 2019, after walking in the Basque Country, from Donostia-San Sebastián to Bilbao, and around Urdaibai. Thoughts shaped by the land and the sea, and things seen, heard and read at that time.)

2019-06-12 11.04.182019-06-21 14.57.04


Green Lane

Green Lane 25 May 2019

Walk the Green Lane by the Adur
Sunburnt, pub-fed, watched by deer
Through midges, near sunset, warm day’s end

Garden warbler buzzes, grates, grumbles
Blackcap becomes loud and clear
Bullfinch whistles low in unflailed blackthorn

Turtle dove purrs in dead tree above scrub
Cuckoo flies fast and straight
Loveless nightingales sing the longest, into the night

White ermine, untroubled, on door edge
The moth, all life, at home, let be
Like the storks, returning

(May 2019, after time spent at the Knepp Estate, West Sussex, Europe’s biggest lowland rewilding site.)

23 December 2018

2018-12-19 12.30.29

This land sings, welcomes, heals,
Oka, Oma, Orduña,
Holm and sessile, pasture and estuary,
Curlew, vulture and boar.

People in the city, the same faces cascaded down generations,
Are stranger to me now.
I ghost-walk through talk of family, food and football,
Unseen, like the cathedral beggar.

Dream-state detachment ends at the solstice,
As I return to those who see, hear and hold,
Home a place of knowing and caring,
Where the land’s song is muted.

(Written after a week spent in Urdaibai, Orduña and Bilbao, December 2018.)

30 August 2018

2018-08-30 10.02.11

Here, now, early in the day,
I know that all I need
Is the sound of waves on sand,
Salt-sea breeze on warm skin,
Peace beneath the sand, and in the world above.
Later, a Levante-red sun will set
On that azure horizon,
And locals, in awe and appreciation,
Will applaud.

(Playa de la Victoria, Cádiz.)

2018-08-28 20.57.52

7 July 2018

I know the way the light falls in this house,
How it feels that the light falls that way, then,
In each place, at different times and seasons.

Decades of moments in each corner, held in vertical time,
Layered moods and memories, accreted knowledge,
Like leaves that fall softly to make the forest floor.

Sound of birds, distant traffic, a plane,
Through open window.

Tangle of Wool

Tangle of wool from Firle Beacon, clover flower entwined,
Speak of gifts freely given, even in harsh uplands.
To the North the land, inland, England, a life cairn destroyed.
South, the timeless sea of sleep, river freshwater turns salt.

Nine padlocks secure the flow of data through masts at Beddingham Hill,
Then vast grain and brassica fields, long, devil-straight lines,
Life rationalised, precision-engineered, wodwos purged,
A map of the mind that shapes this land that once was trees.

In the river valleys that cut across the Downs grinding A-roads,
Saxon churches, divided market towns, unaffordable rose-wisteria villages.
Roses all around the home of the woodsman, who bathes with lilies and dragonflies,
Lodsworth village shop, brewery, baker, apple press, rumours of glory.

Buzzards over uncivilised ghosts at East Meon, a red kite among paragliders,
And our love is all the old beech woods of Southern England.
Finally, past a crippled hare, through dust-dry edgelands, to Winchester, the cathedral,
To light a candle for the ancestors, for life, and my soul.

(June 2018, after walking the South Downs Way from Eastbourne to Winchester.)