Freshwater Cadence

I do not speak
the bubbling language
of fish underwater

I do not even speak
the language of the caster,
selecting lures, keeping
hooks out of low-hanging
branches

My voice is the one
that stands, wading, still,
right by the shore, watching
a school of waving shapes
float gently by.

By JD DeHart


JD DeHart is a writer and teacher. His poems have appeared in Gargouille and The Other Herald, among other publications. DeHart blogs at jddehartpoetry.blogspot.com.

Leaf and Tree

I suppose we all have those places that preoccupy our early imagination. For Thoreau it was Walden, Donald Hall has Eagle Pond, Annie Dillard gave us her account at Tinker Creek, and for the rest of us, if we are fortunate to experience the common wonders of any natural landscape, this activity can become an opportunity for learning and even spiritual reflection. Growing up in West Virginia, the creek was always one of those places for me; a place to fish, explore and learn. Those finds in all aspects continue to renew themselves and remain an inexhaustible source of material for writing. “Leaf and Tree” is about that search that continues to this day.

Warm, autumn afternoons I would walk parallel with the creek
onto a broad, gravel bed.
Over the wide clearing
spread leaf-woven canopies beyond my body’s reach.
Once, in mid-August
I found a glass chalice half-covered with maple leaves
in the cradle of a wash-out.
Every rise of the creek changed a geography of shore and bank.

At the limestone base of a hill,
an eroded slip bordered this shallow pool of water.
My feet waded, walked a narrow space
beside jade that only light could conjure.
Hours in summer shade
rock shards tumbled from my hands at water’s ledge.
Their stacked forms would break,
shatter on the ground like loose glass.
Fragments held fossils; wood-knots, fern, feathers,
a tooth, ammonite, or the bones of fish in carbon film,
lichen green on burgundy brown.

Released from limb’s hold, gold twirled down,
yellow bliss in wind-spun shower
where light-filled forms fell in water at my feet.
I could feel the force of life
surge, open, not knowing solitude,
ignorant of all, yet aware something moved through me,
was part of me, that sensed in the reeling flurry
what is seen and lost, what always is, even then, unknown.

You don’t have words when you’re young.

A broken piece of lime, angled end in water,
drew gritty lines on sandstone—
primitive scrawls where meaning never was.
Leaves arced here and there.
These collided, tumbled forms in wind
were like a sea of breath throughout the body.
One shell, fragile as a locust hull
glided like an ancient boat across my reflection.

By John Timothy Robinson

Rocky creek with green trees


John Timothy Robinson is a traditional citizen and graduate of the Marshall University Creative Writing program in Huntington, West Virginia with a Regent’s Degree. He has an interest in Critical Theory of poetry and American Formalism. John is also a twelve-year educator for Mason County Schools in Mason County, WV.

Photo by sergwsq

The Empirical River

view of small town in Canada from the Saguenay River

The window above my kitchen sink faces the street. On summer evenings, as I am washing dishes after dinner, I watch people from the neighbourhood walk toward the river. The public beach at the end of the road is not large, but it is beautiful. The shoreline faces a pristine wilderness on the opposite bank, and the water stretches two or three kilometres wide. Its expanse is dotted with islands, most of which are only a couple dozen metres across. The corridor of old-growth forest that separates the town from the river has been divided up into acre-lots, each lot having a clear cut pocket in the trees in order to make room for the beautiful homes of the town’s older, more affluent residents.

The families that pass by my window are usually quite young and full of energy when compared to the established home owners who live along the riverbank. The young families bring wagons, floaty toys, coolers, collapsible chairs, toddlers, pre-teens, teens, in-laws, blood-relatives, fireworks, volley ball nets, marijuana, the cheap plastic masonry tools required to build sand castles, nerf footballs, snorkelling equipment and all kinds of other paraphernalia one might need on a small beach in a quiet country town. Occasionally, a young married couple will portage a canoe past my driveway as they trek to the river.

The lively particularity of the beach-goers certainly makes them more exciting than the sedentary old folks, but even their transient energy seems inconsequential when compared to the ancient and stoic river. It sits in the lowlands of a rift valley formed by two of the earth’s largest fault lines. The tectonics of the last 175 million years have formed a riverbed that stretches over a thousand kilometres long, at times very deep, and often very wide. It trends generally northwest to southeast, carrying bitingly cold water from the top of the province. It is a serpentine pattern of raging white water interspersed amongst broad basins of deceptive stillness – deceptive because the still water is rapid-locked and thus conceals a violent undercurrent. Also misleading are the verdured river banks. When viewed from the water, they lead one to believe that the surrounding topography is a lush and static woodland. In actuality, the gallery forest obscures huge swaths of rolling farmland, the result of hundreds of years of logging and aggressive commercial interest in the primeval forests that once surrounded the river.

However, the families are not concerned with the river’s abiding or ambiguous qualities when they return to the beach night after night, year after year. They are attracted to the river’s flowing energy. Their interest is not without precedent. Heraclitus, a philosopher who worked sometime around 500 B.C., while trying to describe the ultimate nature of reality as a flux that cannot be pinpointed in time, said we cannot step into the same river twice. The ancient Greek poets, starting with Hesiod, believed that in order to enter the underworld, the dead had to drink from the river of forgetfulness; and Virgil, in the Aeneid, argued that until the souls did so, they could not be re-incarnated. Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, began his tale on the Thames River and recounted Marlow’s journey into the depths of madness and human evil while travelling down the Congo River. Mark Twain built his career out of his experiences on the Mississippi River, setting his most famous creations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, on those waters. George Orwell, at the time of his death, was planning a trip down the Mississippi because he loved Twain’s descriptions of it so much.

My neighbourhood resembles Twain’s descriptions of the small towns that sprang up along the Mississippi, except it is populated by the people of my time and not the characters of the author’s great novels. They train for triathlons with waterproof iPods, and perform figure eights on jet skis that offend many of the town’s older citizens. Sometimes, while I prepare to go to sleep, I listen to the teenagers as they return from the beach. I will walk out of the bathroom as I brush my teeth and stand in front of the largest window facing the street, while they proclaim their love for the river loudly into the night and throw beer cans on my neighbour’s lawn. They remind me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

small farms and houses along riverThe energy of the river appears majestic when considered in its social, historical, geologic, and literary dimensions; it binds families, animates the young, and motivates retirees to settle down on the acre lots. But it can also be destructive. There has been a growing field of study in Canada called hydrology, because the continual flooding of large rivers in several provinces regularly claims entire towns. The earth has a hydrological cycle: drainage basins collect surface run-off that forms as a result of precipitation and condensation caused by temperature changes. In the high-country, those basins then pool and eventually the water moves itself over the land. That energy can destroy rock and power hydro-electric dams. It can also make my elderly neighbour enter into yelling matches with drunk teenagers. It is both sublime and commonplace.


Clayton Garrett is an aspiring writer originally from Toronto, who has spent the last ten years living in remote regions of Canada. In keeping with the conventions of publishing, he always writes his author bio in the third person but can be reached in the first person at loftyconcrete@gmail.com.

Photo 1 by Sylvie Bouchard

Photo 2 by Senorgogo

Two Tree Island

Two Tree Island and marshlandIf like me you’re a lover of the salt-marshes Two Tree Island should suit you well. It lies in the Thames Estuary between the mainland at Leigh on Sea and Canvey Island where the river and the estuary come together. According to the locals it did originally get its name from those two eponymous trees. What species they were I could not tell you but my guess would be that they were elm trees. Before the ravages of Dutch elm disease Essex was famous for its marshland elms. Mind you it seems that the Dutch have been maligned. The disease actually reached this country in sawn timber from Canada it appears. The disease is spread by the Dutch elm beetle — or more specifically two species of ambrosia beetle: Scolytus destructor and S. multistriatus. These burrow into the bark and spread a fungus throughout the trees’ vascular system — their xylem and phloem. This interferes with the trees’ circulatory system and many of them eventually die from lack of water and nutrients.

Being of a certain age I remember the Essex marshes when the Dutch elm was the tree pre-eminent. These particular trees are not viable from seed in England. They actually spread by the means of underground suckers. In the flat and open country of the Essex marshes they added a rhythm to the ground bass of the seemingly infinite horizons. Each mature tree planted at intervals around the field edges would throw up suckers which would eventually form a continuous wave of taller and shorter trees. This beautiful undulation was characteristic of elm trees both on the marshes and on the higher ground further inland. As children we knew them by their country name of ‘snap-wood’. Branches, seemingly sound with a full flush of leaves, would snap off for no apparent reason. Just suddenly of their own volition with an audible crack in the wind. Climbing these trees was treacherous. Needless to say I’ve climbed many of them and have the broken bones to prove it. Bird nesting was a hobby of mine when I was younger — shame on you, you say! But in the 1950s boys and birds’ eggs were synonymous I’m afraid. Rooks in their raucous ‘parliaments’ used to nest in those elm trees. I love rooks: their black be-purpled iridescence, their interminable bickering in the tree tops and the loudly self righteous judgements they are supposed to make about each other according to folklore. Would spring be the same without them? For me rooks and newly flowering elms were the epitome of the vernal season. Blue skies, racing clouds, the high building cumulate magnificence of glacial showers — shot through with gold and the spectral brilliance of rainbows. ‘March winds, April showers’ — ‘in like a lion and out like a lamb’ – these old saws, the rooks and the reality they engendered were all I needed for love to become manifest.

If the elms were magnificent in spring and summer then they were even more spectacular in autumn. They turned from green into the most unbelievable yellow imaginable. They were incandescent. It was as if they had their own inviolable light source. Around the time of Firework’s Night they were a literal conflagration of leaves. Like veritable Roman candles they erupted into the lamp-lit and moon magnificent skies — a mass of sparks cascading in the misted air, melting the first of autumn’s glittering frosts. Their fiery veins and bifurcations connected me to the constellations in the skies. Like the Norse ‘world tree’ — ‘Yggdrasil’ the ash — they were the conduit between the gods and the underworld and us mere mortals in between. The earth and the galaxies coming together through this ‘imaginary’ world axis: the stuff of the stars and the stars themselves being one through its agency. At least, that’s how I felt and feel.

Two Tree Island: it’s a Saturday morning in mid November. It’s cloudy, cold and relatively calm. The tide is coming in and the creeks and gullies around the saltings are filling with water. Ahead of the tide are a group of knot feeding – Canute’s bird’s – holding the water back. There are about a dozen oyster catchers, as pied as Frisians or Holsteins, probing the mud with their glorious coral bills. Small family parties of Brent geese are bobbing about on the waves like burnt corks. A little egret is white beyond whiteness. Like a circus performer on stilts it teeters on the edge of the tide, preens its pristine perfection. I get my monocular out of the glove compartment and prepare to take a closer look at the wildlife. A man with a black Labrador passes me and then throws a stick into the sea. It and the Labrador hit the water together and the birds ‘explode’ in panic. So much for ornithology!

Where do all these birds come from and how do they get here? I can feel the moon and the sun pulling at the tides — pulling at the wildfowl and the waders. They come from the north and the east every autumn and winter. Does magnetism draw them here? Is it topography? Some sort of star map, perhaps? If it’s just instinct then instinct is far more intricate than I first thought. If I was dropped off in Siberia without a map or compass could I find my way home on my own without speaking to another person? I doubt it! The dark bellied Brent geese come all the way from Siberia to winter mostly in the tidal creeks and estuaries of Essex. They come for the eel grasses and algae: zostera and enteromorpha. These aquatic grasses and algae grow throughout the summer and by the time we reach September the mudflats in the shallower areas are completely covered in green. We may have 10,000 or more Brent geese over-wintering by Two Tree Island and come February most of the eel grass has been devoured. Then, some of the birds fly further afield in search of fresh supplies — even as far as Chichester Harbour on the South Coast. Have you ever experienced thousands of geese taking off together? It is phenomenal. They sound like all of the hounds of hell have been unleashed and the same time. The clangourous cacophony is accompanied by a tremendous rush of wings. Like waves crashing against the shore or gale force winds tearing through the summer trees. It’s exhilarating. They can block out the sun at times during the day and at night they can turn the moonbeams into some sort of frenetic strobe lighting.

On those rare cold and snowy February nights the widgeon whistle and the curlew flute their lost and lonely ‘songs’. Under the full moon, with ice clinging to the edges of the saltings, snow over the marshes and the sea glittering like molten silver, the plaintive and soulful sounds of these two most evocative birds of the salt marshes can occasionally be interrupted by the eerie ‘laughter’ of the shelduck. I’ve spent many nights out on the marshes and the contrast between them and the town itself is completely and utterly one of opposites: literally two different worlds. I suppose in a way the town is a metaphor for the countryside – or nature itself if you prefer. Brick comes from clay, concrete from limestone, glass from sand and metal from iron ore etc. etc. But the town is so divorced from its elements that you wouldn’t think so. We are not only cosseted in towns but we are cut off from the wider realities of nature. I’ve never really liked towns. The conveniences of ‘civilised’ living are useful of course but I’m never happier than when I’m ‘communing’ with nature – whatever that means! The curlew’s lost and lonely call speaks to the soul whereas the sound of traffic and aircraft doesn’t. Somehow it’s where we came from. Before reason and logic and words, before farming and surplus values, before politics and capitalism and communism and democracy and fascism and whatever other ism you care to name, before the shopping malls (our new cathedrals) and the out of town hypermarkets. Before money was the be all and end all of our existence and success was seen purely in material terms. A sort of primal innocence or perhaps I mean instinct? ‘In the beginning there was the Word and then there was Light’. And where has the Word and the Light got us to? Capitalism that’s where: perpetual growth, perpetual increases in population to sustain industry and consumerism, global warming and intolerable degrees of pollution. The world’s population has doubled in the last 50 years and the increase is exponential. There’s much in the modern world that I’m thankful for and I can’t really see us going back to some sort of hunter/gatherer type of society — sadly. There are too many of us for such a way of life to be sustainable. Unfortunately the gap between the rich and the poor is still widening and when the mass of the population are living in urbanised squalor with little in the way of education, and even more detrimentally, without a sense of any real community or culture, then trouble is bound to ensue. We can’t all live in gated communities can we? Perhaps that’s what the sadness is in the curlew’s lost and lonely call — “I’m sorry there’s no way back, you’re trapped in the veneer of civilisation as the twenty first century hurtles towards Apocalypse” — “The end of the world is nigh”. And then, perhaps not, surely at the eleventh hour we can still do something? Growth for growth’s sake just has to stop. We need greater sustainability in farming, a more mixed, organic and rotational system. Forget the herbicides, the fungicides, the insecticides and the chemical fertilisers. Let’s have more recycling, more renewables and most of all let’s stop our precipitous urge to procreate! I’ve done my bit, I’m childless and I haven’t been on an airplane since the early 1970s. Not that I’m perfect of course, far from it. I still drive a car and buy my share of air miles in my local supermarket. My carbon footprint is definitely larger than it should or could be!

marshland around Two Tree IslandBut let’s get back to Two Tree Island and nature’s priceless gifts. Or is it just nature we’re talking about? The saltings themselves are nature’s handiwork but much of the ground around them has been ‘inned’ from the sea over the centuries and that which hasn’t has been built up with Southend’s domestic rubbish for many decades. Not that you’d know it now though. All the landfill sites have been grassed over, the marshes drained and criss-crossed with dykes.

I remember one very hot August day some twenty years ago. I was with my partner Clare in her clinker built ‘tideway’. We were not under sail but using her one and a half horse power, long reach, outboard motor. We explored Tewkes Creek — tewkes is the local name for the wader known as the redshank — and then motored along Benfleet creek. We stopped by a small island in the creek and went swimming in the altogether. The tide was sparkling in the sunlight like a mirror that had just been smashed to smithereens. The air was hot and oppressive and the sky was a hazy lactic blue from horizon to horizon. The merest puffs of wind whispered through the bank-side vegetation and Hadleigh Castle stood on its whale-backed ridge like a silver sentinel. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, like an epiphany, the sky was full of curlew. They were returning from the far north, and even, the not so far north. Many of these birds had probably nested on the moor-lands of Scotland and Northern England. The world turns on its inclined axis and this creates the seasons. If the axis had been perpendicular we would all experience twelve hours daylight and twelve hours darkness for twelve months of the year. It would be like the equatorial regions — a land without differences. And how dull would that be? I am definitely ‘a man for all seasons’! I’m glad that I was born in the Temperate Zone. I like the cycles of the year. Although, being something of a snow freak I’m not that keen on the Gulf Stream — it warms us up too much in the winter I feel. Manchester is on the same latitude as Moscow though you wouldn’t believe it temperature-wise.

These curlew are a sign that the seasons are still coming and going as they should be – as they have always done. The moor-land nesting birds have returned to the mudflats to feed over winter in the relative warmth of the coastal waters. Soon the hawthorn thickets below Hadleigh Castle – that has been a ruin since the 13th century — will be turning red and gold. The fieldfares and redwings from Scandinavia will come to plunder their berries and then fly off elsewhere on their ravenous sorties. John Constable’s painting of Hadleigh Castle in stormy weather was painted about 200 years ago and then the sea came right up to the foot of the hills it’s now standing on — but no more, it is now a mile inland. All this ‘change in changelessness’ as the mystics tell us: the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of our lives and their correspondences – spring as our birth, summer our adulthood, autumn old age and winter death. But as Percy Byshe Shelly once said ‘If winter comes can spring be far behind’? It’s all cycles: birth’ life, death and resurrection. It’s in all the ancient mystery religions: Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Tamuz and of course Mithras who was born on December the 25th! All these ancient mystery religions partook of the Eucharist. Initiates took the stories literally but the adepts knew differently — it was a symbolic route to gnosis (knowledge and experience of oneness). Perhaps we should be less literalist about our Christianity and see things more in symbolic terms. I’m sure the pews would begin to fill up again if we did. People are as hungry as ever for spiritual sustenance but they don’t want to have to digest ‘too many unbelievable things before breakfast’!

One summer long ago when I was young and fit and still walked everywhere I went to Two Tree Island on the lookout for short eared owls. I’d been told that they were there but I’d never managed to see them myself. One summer’s day before dusk I hid myself in a hawthorn bush beside a sun-shot rippling dyke and waited for the light to fade. In due course my patience paid off. A short eared owl wafted, that’s the only word for it, across the dyke and then started quartering the banks. What was he/she after, voles perhaps, or mice, or shrews? You rarely see any of these tiny creatures and yet there must be thousands of them to the acre considering how many other birds and animals live off them! It’s said that shrews have toxic saliva and distasteful scent glands and that consequently not many animals eat them. Owls do though, so my newly found short eared owl shouldn’t go hungry.

These marshes used to be the repository of the ‘ague’ or malaria as it’s more commonly known. In the days before extensive drainage the dykes were home to the female anopheles mosquito. She, who needed blood to feed her own young, spread the disease far and wide. It is said that people who were born on the marshes were immune to the ‘ague’. Many farmers it is said took brides from the ‘highlands’. These were not immune and quickly succumbed to the illness and died. It is speculated that some farmers got through as many as a dozen wives in this way! I’m told that the last case of the ‘ague’ on the Leigh Marshes was as recent as the 1950s! Now the dykes are alive with frogs and toads and newts. Herons stand knee deep in the water ready to snap closed their mandibles and gulp down any available amphibious meal and at certain times of the year dragonflies — or the devil’s darning needles as they’re known locally — either hawk or dart above their own rippling reflections in search of prey. Dragonflies are amongst the fastest and oldest insects alive. It is estimated that they can fly at between 35 and 60mph and have been found in fossilised records from as long ago as 300 million years. What a privilege it is to share the planet with such beautiful and venerable creatures. I have a small pond in my garden and the main reason I keep it is to attract wildlife — especially dragonflies. I have no fish but there are frogs and newts in due season, water boatmen, whirligig beetles and pond skaters, yellow flags, water lilies and marsh marigolds — or kingcups as I prefer to call them. Dragonflies live as nymphs underwater for a couple of years feeding on anything they can get their ravenous maws around and then hatch into adults. They don’t live long as adults — long enough to mate and then lay their eggs on water plants. Last year I had a massive green and yellow dragonfly laying eggs on the plants around my pond. Unfortunately I couldn’t find it in any of my field books – but then ‘what’s in a name’? Look into their multifaceted iridescent eyes, they’re fantastic. Admire their gauzy wings, the bifurcating and filamentous veins, like those on an aged hand or fading leaf. There are pleasures to be found in such innocent intimacy. God thought of this creature 300 million years ago and it was manifest. We came much later. This is how I think of the world. In the beginning there was an infinite thought, then the ‘big bang’, and then the potential for everything. Energy and matter are just different expressions of each other. It must be true because Einstein said so! I like to say God; a physicist on the other hand might prefer a different terminology — ‘string theory’ for instance. Whatever, when the quantum mechanic and the mystic get together there are some strange correspondences. Different vibrations make different manifestations. We have multi universes, non locality where things affect each other spontaneously at infinite distances and particles that appear out of nowhere for no apparent reason and then disappear — called ghost particles: something from nothing no less. Some scientists nowadays think that the universe seems more like a vast thought than anything else. I get closer to God through nature and quantum physics than I do through the Bible — as much as I love the Bible. But not believing in it literally of course.

There’s a freshwater lagoon on the southern edge of Two Tree Island and it’s there that the return of the avocet has been accommodated. For many years the avocet was not found as a breeding bird in the British Isles. It used to be in the past but for various reasons it stopped being so. Now it is back in force and it is such a beautiful and iconic wader that The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has used an image of it as their society’s emblem. The RSPB first encouraged its successful return to Great Britain at their nature reserve at Minsmere on the Suffolk coast. On Two Tree Island egg thieves stopped it thriving for a number of years but eventually local bird enthusiasts organised a roster for watching over the birds 24/7 throughout the nesting season. Now all’s well that ends well and a goodly number of avocets are nesting and producing young every season. As a onetime egg collector I can understand the urge to collect. But in my reckless days the common eggs were just as interesting as the rarities. Nowadays it’s all about rarity value and the prices involved. Surely in this over populated, over farmed environment, that is slowly losing more and more of its natural habitats, this sort of egg — and sometimes the chick pilfering of owls and raptors — cannot be allowed to continue. Balance and diversity that’s what we need — we’ve lost so much, can we afford to lose any more?

There is also the taste of Two Tree Island to consider. I once bought a book called ‘Food for Free’ but I have to admit I didn’t find that much to my liking between its learned pages! Stinging nettles have their uses either as beer or soup or in my case ‘spring greens’. They did taste a bit like spinach and I quite enjoyed them. The umbellifers that grow near the sea – alexanders – have blanched stems that have the flavour of celery but they were far too stringy for my liking. The one thing that I did like was marsh samphire. There are many species of this succulent plant which grows on the mudflats and is covered at high tide. It used to be collected in vast quantities and was burnt in order to produce the soda used in the manufacture of soap and glass – hence its other name, glasswort. We used to gather it, blanch it in boiling water, let it cool and then pickle it with vinegar and spices. It is delicious. The succulent plant is formed of tiny globules of green translucent flesh arranged around a woody stem. You just put the whole plant in your mouth and biting it between your teeth you pull all the flesh off of the woody stem. As I say delicious. You can also eat it raw – straight from the sea. It has the taste of the sea like oysters. It is unbelievably subtle – as much of a feeling or a scent than a taste. The smell of seaweed, salt winds, even the sound of seagulls crying: synaesthesia I believe they call it – where one particular sense expresses another. Without a doubt the best ‘food for free’ on Two Tree Island comes around in late summer, early autumn – the blackberry of course. If the blackberry is not the taste of summer personified then I don’t know what is. There are masses of brambles on the island and equally masses of people prepared to harvest them when they are ripe. I particularly love them cooked in a short crust pie with Bramley apples. Is it not the very flesh and blood of summer? Only to be eaten piping hot with lashings of custard. The only food we’re famed for in France is our custard – they call it crème anglais! There are two other draughts of nature’s haemoglobin to be found on Two Tree Island: sloes and elderberries. Clare makes sloe gin every autumn. The method is simplicity itself: one third gin, one third sloes and one third sugar. You have to wait a few months for the results but it is well worth the wait. It turns into more of a liqueur than a spirit: thick and sweet and sumptuous. The colour is amethyst, like the heads of teasels. When I see it I think of goldfinches feeding on the teasels’ seed heads: black, yellow, white and ruby, like animate jewels. Elderberry is the crone’s tree. In witchcraft you have the maiden, the woman and the crone. These correspond with the phases of the moon: new, full and old. Before you take anything from the elder — the flowers in spring to make elderflower champagne or the berries in autumn to make elderberry wine — you must ask the crone’s permission. You should also leave her a gift or make a libation. Do these things with a good heart for everything in nature has its spirit, its abiding life force. I believe this being both a poet and pantheist. Vitalism, animism, these things are not antiquated superstitions in my poetic mind – everything is alive, everything is one. If I imagine something then it’s real as far as I’m concerned. The One is manifested in the many and the many are a manifestation of the One.

The mullet is a fish of the tidal creeks and gullies — a sinuous denizen of the saltings. Here in the creeks surrounding Two Tree Island they grow to an inordinate size. They are summer visitors that come in and out with the tide twice a day. Whether they are thick lipped or thin lipped mullet or both I’m not quite sure. The thin lipped are the smallest and grow up to about 7lbs whilst the thick lipped reach the magnificent size of 14lbs. Lying in the undergrowth in the late summer looking into the creeks and gullies I have seen fish of around the 10lb mark, so they must have been thick lipped mullet. They are a silver torpedo of a fish. They feed on plant Material and sift through the silts searching for small molluscs and crustaceans. They are extremely difficult to catch on rod and line. Their top lip has the unfortunate habit of coming adrift after they have been hooked. You really need to fish with very light tackle and small hooks. This way you can allow the fish to take the bait deep into its mouth before you strike thus avoiding the tricky business of the detachable lips! They are caught mostly on small pieces of bread or bacon fat. Here, close to Leigh on Sea however they have become quite partial to cockles that are the stock in trade of the local commercial fishermen. There is nothing quite like an exceptionally high tide on a hot summer’s day. When there is hardly a breath of air and the tide creeps in with its sun-shot shards of liquid silver. I have thrown bread to attract them — not to fish, just to watch, to be a part of their sinuous antics. They swirl around on the surface creating glittering vees with their dorsal fins. I’ve seem as many as ten or twelve together opening and closing their large rubbery mouths and sucking in pieces of bread. They are beautiful, treasure from the deeps, spirits from the underworld.

The coruscating gold and silver of the sea is sometimes augmented by the rippling liquid notes of the skylark as it climbs its ladder of song into the delirious blue of the July heavens. The hemlock and hogweed have seeded and are now standing around in serried skeletal ranks. The common mallow is magnificent with its subtle mauves interspersed as it is with the yellows of the aromatic fennel. Here I have seen such things as a peregrine falcon stoop diving during the day and seven swans at night flying beneath an enormous gilded moon. Nature is always speaking — all we have to do is to listen. And what does it say you ask? It speaks without words. It is God’s indecipherable and irreducible love epiphanised — if you’ll excuse the neologism — through the agency of duality. God cleft the Devil’s hoof — He, She, or It, had no option. For oneness to experience itself two-ness had to come into being. Oneness has nothing to assess itself against. It is just like some sort of infinite thoughtless thought. Reality as we know it is expressed through opposites: love and hate, night and day, age and youth, life and death, pleasure and pain, war and peace etc. etc. To experience the good you have to experience the bad – that’s reality I’m afraid. But not to worry, no matter how much the pain, no matter how bad things get, ultimately all will be well. We were never born so we can never die. When we ‘shuffle off our mortal coil’ we dissolve back into the oneness we always were. I should imagine we then go on to higher spiritual things or if we have not evolved enough this time round on earth we may well start again as someone else. This is all speculation of course — but that’s how I feel personally after a life time’s thought and contemplation. That’s not to say that I’m impervious to the fear of death of course, in fact the ‘old man with his scythe’ has been haunting me all of my life. It’s just that as the famous Victorian spiritual writer Richard Jeffries once said: “If eternity proves to be false when I die then I’m still glad I had such a thought whilst I was alive” – or something close to that anyway. Atheists seem to be able to cope with finitude but I’m afraid that I can’t — I need some sort of faith otherwise it would all seem pointless. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with the post Darwinian world – an almost absolute sense of pointlessness? I don’t suppose the mullet thinks like that — if it thinks at all in our terms. It just belongs — that primal innocence I was talking about earlier in this somewhat desultory essay.

The sea gives up its treasures in the form of sinuous silver mullet and the saltings give up theirs in the shape of flowers. Early in the summer we have the white cruciform scurvy grass and the pink sea thrift. These compliment each other wonderfully. In my mind they are always associated with the salt blue skies of the Thames Estuary. Not that they’re absent in dull and cloudy weather of course but for me their image is indelibly fixed in sunlight. Scurvy grass and sea pinks and the skylarks singing — what more does an inveterate nature lover need to be sustained spiritually, emotionally and sentiently? Swallows in their mid shipman uniforms curve and glide and loop across the shrubby sea blite and the sea purslane. The white husks of dead crabs rattle thin and papery in the breeze as they hang in the salt-marsh vegetation – with all the poignancy of bleached animal bones lying in the desert or strewn across some drought ridden savannah. The sparkling, glittering, coruscating sea blends its white hot shards of gold and silver into the hazy blue of the far horizon. It’s like being inside some sort of alchemical bubble. Everything base has been turned into precious metals. Sails like flakes of sunlight heel over in the salt sea breezes. Black headed gulls mew, black back gulls bark and herring gulls trumpet their irrepressible sea shanties over the sandbanks where the cormorants spread and dry their shimmering wings. As summer moves imperceptibly towards autumn the sea lavender and sea asters begin to flower. The sea aster is like a fleshy version of the michaelmas daisy. The word aster comes directly from the Latin and Greek for star — aster. I suppose the flowers are star-like in their own way. They have a disk of yellow central florets surrounded by a ring of pale mauve petals. But then it has to be said that most composites are similar in morphology so why this particular species received such a nomenclature is difficult to ascertain. Semantics aside, they and the purple sea lavender are a welcome addition to the late summer colours across the saltings. Glaucous is the word I’m looking for: sea green/blue/grey — like the bloom on grapes or sloes or damsons. There are some subtle pinks to be seen emanating from the salt marsh succulents and then the vibrant addition of the asters and the purple sea lavender — delightful.

Summer comes to an end on Two Tree Island with the return of the wildfowl and the waders. Sloes and elderberries and blackberries tempt the rambler with their succulent, and in one case, prickly differences whilst the swallows and the martins wend their valedictory way towards the southernmost parts of Africa — south of the Sahara. What a miracle it all is and what a privilege to share in nature’s multifaceted delights. The island looks out across Hadleigh Ray towards Benfleet Creek where the Vikings sailed and pillaged and plundered more than a thousand years ago until King Alfred the Great’s son — or was it son-in-law? — finally defeated them in the battle of Benfleet. A few centuries ago men — mostly from Holland I should think — were reclaiming as much land from the sea as they could — ‘inning’ the marshes as it was called. Two hundred years since, John Constable painted the eminence that is Hadleigh Castle, high on the ridge that overlooks one of my favourite places on earth. For me, through all the varying seasons, this is one of the places where time and timelessness collide.

I remember being here in a thick sea fog one long cold winter ago. Fog horns were sounding and the waders and the wildfowl were voicing their unearthly sounds in what was for all intents and purposes a meteorological form of singularity. It could have been the oneness before the world was formed, before time was set in motion — or more specifically, in sequence. I stood there shivering in the ‘dazzling darkness’, the ‘thoughtless all-knowing’ and wondered at the vagaries of existence, the eternal mystery that sometimes if one’s lucky seeps from the enquirer’s pen and leaves an indelible mark on the page.


Mervyn Linford lives in both Suffolk and Essex in the United Kingdom. He has been writing prose and poetry inspired by the natural environment for nearly fifty years. Saltwater and freshwater habits are his formative areas of interest and he still spends much of his time immersed in the sentient and spiritual dimensions of such places in both person and the pen and the keyboard. Click here to visit his website. author photo

Least Force Necessary

There are thresholds we cross that leave us profoundly, irrevocably changed. They do not have to appear momentous, like an ocean, a border, a mountain range but can seem rather commonplace—a traffic sign, envelope, door of a home. We may not even be aware of facing one as we approach. I’m not saying this was one of the big ones. But I can’t say either yet that it wasn’t.
 
The moment I step up onto the tundra bench I realize my mistake. I forgot to shout “Hey bear!” like I normally do when beaching the raft, to avoid nasty surprises.

Right now, this slip of attention could get me killed.

Not twenty yards away, a grizzly stands up in the grass, fixing me in the crossfire of its stare. Next to it, two fur balls, jolly as piglets: cubs. It’s a worst-case scenario come to life.

Adult Grizzley Bear looking over grass

What a mess. I have two clients on a beach upstream, one wet and fiercely shivering—luckily, he was able to swim ashore after flipping in this no-brainer rapid. I have his paddle, which I fished from the current after chasing it in the “mother ship,” the big baggage raft. I don’t have his $1,200 packraft (think six-foot-long synthetic donut, but rubber and elliptic, with a membrane-thin floor); that lies wedged into the rock garden on the Hulahula River’s far side. Nor do I have the pump-action shotgun, which I left strapped on top of the load in my haste to hike back to my packrafters and unravel this snarl.

Overall, I don’t like bringing guns. We’re in the bears’ home and it is impolite to shoot the host. But the company I work for requires its guides to carry firearms, and clients are more relaxed when we do. Personally, I prefer the least amount of force necessary to deter nosey or grumpy or pesky bruins, deploying a long-tested, effective escalation of choices. First, whistles, to make our presence known in brushy country (like the bright orange one tied to my life vest, the one I should have blown upon landing). Then pots and pans to bang together and thereby claim our turf with sound. And, most formidably, “pepper spray”: a potent chemical aerosol pressurized in a can. It’s the last-ditch of self-defense, also used by women and policemen in urban face-offs.

I am a staunch believer in bear spray. No serious harm has come to anyone who has used it properly in a bear attack. People with rifles or revolvers, on the other hand, have been maimed or killed, because a wounded bear is more dangerous than one that’s only pissed off. We therefore weigh each of the slender black spray cans before the season starts to see if they’re full. I keep mine in a side pocket of my pants, for quick access. However, as we caution everyone before each trip, your best survival tool is your brain.

Right now mine seems to be stuck after firing that mental blank when I stepped onto the beach. But reptilian reflexes take over. My arms go up. I mumble appeasement, apology. My legs move backwards, taking me down the bench to the rocky foreshore. I hope the bear won’t follow.

She does. Like a hellhound charging after a fallen soul, she rumbles in my direction, a boulder trundling downhill. She’s on all fours, bulked-up, center of gravity close to the ground in combat mode. Her ears are pinned back against her skull—a sign of her mood and to protect them from being bitten. As if I would.

In a motion that would do a gunslinger proud, I reach into my pocket, whip out the bear spray, thumb off the safety, and aim. Perhaps she is huffing, growling, chopping her jaws—I couldn’t say. My focus has shrunk to needlepoint vision.

I already am wearing her mark, a paw-print tattooed on my thigh. Down in Tucson, twenty-some years ago, cooped up in a ranch job, I tried to invoke wildness with this ink stencil-totem. I’ve had a bearish streak since childhood, bearish moods and manners combined with a blockhead that only worsens as I age. If you’ve seen bachelor bears out and about after six months of denning, you know what I mean. My hair is gray now; I could pass for a silvertip. But my beard, though bushy, is only a shadow of grizzly hirsuteness, and my sense of the land pales next to theirs. I regret not speaking their language, not knowing what they dream about in the winter. I rate my trips by how many bears we encounter. Still, smitten with them for decades, I don’t want to be smitten by one.

But what I want or don’t want does not matter right now. Chaos is calling the shots.

I am counting on her bluffing, that she will abort the charge at the last instant to test my resolve and send a blunt message: Leave my cubs alone. They say that most bear charges are mock charges, and I’ve weathered my share. If you run, bears will hunt you down. Standing your ground, though, is easier said than done. Every fiber in your body twitches to flee or curl up like a fetus. Experts “recommend” the prenatal position when a bear is upon you, to protect your vital organs, and no image better conveys your vulnerability under such circumstances than that naked, blind, unborn worm.

This really is happening, I realize, as she crosses the invisible line that would normally stop or deflect her. It is time to loose a red pepper cloud. I press the can’s trigger and, with a dragon’s hiss, a burning jet hits the bear squarely in the face. She veers off less than ten feet from me.

Shit. The can is empty. I pushed down the trigger too long instead of giving one short, fell blast. Now I’m left without reserve. But it seemed too brief. Did they actually weigh this can before sending it out on the trip?

Sure enough, the bear, as if sensing my dilemma, turns the dodge into a fluid loop. She wheels about on her hindquarters, resuming the attack. I’m getting a bad case of déjà vu from this second round.

It takes longer to tell this than it did to play out, but as it’s happening I sense time’s elasticity, the trippy, simultaneous squashing and stretching of seconds that rides on adrenaline and speed-warps reality. I stand strangely removed, an impartial witness to my own demise.

Some people experience flashbacks; their whole history unspools before their mind’s eye like a time-lapse film. External motion congeals, except for your own movements, and you have all the time in the world to react. Maybe you won’t. You certainly don’t have all the time in the world. The quickening is also a slowing-down. The ultimate quickening can be complete standstill: the cessation of you.

I am not a religious person; yet in situations like these, pledges are made, bargains struck, conversions affected. Souls alchemize in the crucible of fear. When we witness death, in nature or elsewhere, we confront it indirectly, because it is not our own. With your own life at stake, stoic poise evaporates in a flash.

To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened next. I don’t know if the soles of my hip waders slipped on algae-slick cobbles or if some archaic memory, some biological godhead, commanded me to lie down.
 
The bear has left, or so I’d like to believe, still lying on the ground. I feel no pain. In fact, I have not even been touched, I think. I don’t know how close she came. Perhaps my eyes were shut. Carefully, without moving much, I scan the surroundings. Some people have been savaged, a few repeatedly, after standing too soon with a mad grizzly still hanging around.

I sit up, expecting deformity, blood, spilling guts. Soldiers and accident casualties can suffer short-term amnesia, and sometimes the opioid rush in their system masks even the pain of amputation.

But there’s no blood. Nothing. I’m untouched. And the bear has skedaddled, cubs in her wake. I still cannot believe my luck.

With the threat to her young neutralized, she chose not to risk injury from this thing on the ground that had wielded some kind of stinger. In this hardscrabble place, health and survival are too precious to wager on a bet already won. 
 I take a few minutes to collect myself on the bow of the raft. My knees are like Jell-O—I can’t even stand. Questions flit through my mind, like the proverbial sparrow, flying from darkness into the hall’s light to exit again, too soon, into the night. Would my life jacket have absorbed some of this bear’s anger? Would it have prolonged my life? Would my packrafters have been okay without me? I didn’t even show them how to use the satellite phone to call for help; I never thought I might be the one who’d be helpless out here. 
 Oh shit! The clients. What if she rampaged upstream, tearing into them as they waited for me by the river’s edge?

With the shotgun unsheathed, I lope through widely spaced willows, my heart thumping, whether still or again, I couldn’t say.

I find them exactly where I last saw them and assess their physical state, as I just did my own. They look fine, a bit bored and shivery and then wide-eyed when they see me running toward them with a drawn weapon. The one who flipped his packraft would later tell me he’d worried I’d shoot him because he had messed up his run.

“Where did she go?” I bark, still in overdrive.

“Who?”

“Who? Who?! The bear that almost killed me!” 
 They never saw her. She must have circled wide, crossing the river farther upstream. When I search the bench by my raft after filling them in on the details, I find, as I thought I would, paw prints and fresh dung trailing upstream.     Back at base, my boss put the empty bear spray can up on our warehouse “wall of shame,” with my name and the date penned next to it, where it now hangs together with melted forks, broken paddles, bent tent poles, and a dirt-plugged shotgun barrel that had exploded when the guide pulled the trigger. But I felt no shame in my surviving and was not yet ready to chuckle at it.

I’ve been thinking about “fate” much since that day. Is it mere chance? What were the odds that my carelessness would coincide with the presence of a foraging mother bear? Of all the riverbanks in the refuge, why this one? Does your number come up in some perverse lottery by cumulative probability, by too many days spent exposed to the wilds? Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is part of bad luck. Mistakes in volatile situations then can be the timber that breaks your back, your avoidable contribution to disaster. If fate flows from character, as my line of work and enthusiasms do, then my run-in on the Hulahula was inevitable.

I can’t fully attribute this bear’s restraint to her sense of self-preservation, to wanting to avoid injury, or to her concern for her cubs. I prefer to believe, no doubt naively, that on some level I mattered to her, that she spared me out of compassion. I admire, perhaps even love her for not using more force to remove a perceived threat, especially given the harshness of her existence. Yes, “love,” the big scary, overused, underused, clichéd word. But I have no other label for what washed through me then as it does now. Empathy mixed with gratitude approximates the emotion. Call it Stockholm syndrome or anthropocentric projection if you must. Unarguably, she left intact my violable self, at least its physical aspect. I would have been an easy kill, but she kindly passed when she could have battered, a force majeure in a pelt.

In this context, I cannot stop thinking about stuff that daily percolates through the news, about police brutality, our war on countries, on terror, on drugs, about imprisonment, rioting, eco-sabotage or other forms of civil disobedience, or even about our day-to-day “non-political” dealings with each other. When words or threats fail, pepper spray could do the job of bullets. Embargos could replace bombs. Like myself, the victims will be grateful, the cost to society less.

Perhaps we can learn from wild animals, or in some other way, to apply the least force necessary, responses appropriate to each transgression, each conflict. And perhaps the practice of killing “trouble bears,” those that keep raiding garbage cans or have sampled human flesh, is not sound management but rather Old Testament retribution. Killing the “perp” doesn’t bring back the dead or ease the survivors’ pain. But they say preying bears acquire a taste for it and sometimes seek more.

To pack or not to pack in the backcountry—I struggle with that also. I have used a shotgun and was glad to have it. On the next trip I guided, we unknowingly camped near a protein bonanza on the Noatak River. We found out that salmon were spawning in a tributary about a mile upstream only after a Park Service plane landed on our gravel bar and the ranger opened with, “Did you guys bring a gun?”

Nerves frayed during the next two days. Bears showed up above and below camp exactly at mealtimes, as if in sync with our appetites, dragging ripe fish from the shallows. Some came so close we could hear them crunch spines and heads. Pots and pans did not impress that lot. Warning shots I fired when they drifted into our perimeter barely fazed them, but the clients looked pale. One monstrous, humped male materialized from the brush beside the latrine. Even after he’d sauntered off, I escorted a client whom nature was calling there, shotgun at the ready. I hardly slept for two nights and ran low on ammunition before the bush plane picked us up. I’ve never been happier to see the Noatak’s aquamarine bends shrink behind a cockpit window.
 
I think of her sometimes, or rather, quite often, the one that spared me on the Hulahula: out there, under the midnight sun, drifting through crimson fall-heather, hiding in coastal fog, weary, horny, grouchy, content, pot-bellied or bony, digging her den, grubbing for roots, defying boars, or birthing more twins—hoping that she has not met an untimely end. I think of “her” not of “that bear” as if I really knew her. I’m not alone in this. Others who’ve been less lucky but survived feel the same way. I am bound to her not by friendship or blood or compassion, but by black blazing terror. Our bond can only be severed by death, hers or mine.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear (University of Washington Press), a cultural history of the polar bear, and of the essay collection American Wild (Hiraeth Press), which charts his love for Alaska and the American Southwest and from which this essay has been excerpted. Click here to visit Michael Engelhard’s website.
Book cover of American WildBook cover for Ice Bear