Flashes of Inspiration

Arctic Willow shaped by wind and cold

Arctic Willow shaped by wind and cold

When I lived in Bristol, there were pollarded plane trees lining the busy rat-run to the main road, down which I drove most mornings. Caught in a queue of cars one morning, I glanced up to where the branches just managed to link hands above the brow of the hill. Against the light sky was the un-mistakable outline of a nest among the bare, Winter twigs. The traffic began to move and I had to put my eyes back on the road, but in that momentary glimpse, I’d had a small but extraordinarily powerful experience – a clear flash of shifted perspective, as sharp and vivid as a sudden pain or a dip in ice water: a vision of the view from that nest. Inside my head a version of myself said ‘how would it be to be born in a tree?’ At the time, I had small children of my own, who were peeping over the edge of their own ‘nest’ and sussing out the world, so the image of that other baby’s perspective had a particular emotional power. Whatever the reason, that tiny, intense moment of insight comes back to me now whenever I see a nest, or a place in a tree where there could be one, and for a split second I’m up there, looking down.

I’ve had other fleeting flashes like this, sudden slips in the perceptual fault line, shifting me to another place in the human scheme of things, or a different location on the evolutionary tree. Each time it happens it feels like a blessed patch of coolness inside the hot chaos of my brain. Each time the image and sensations, the ideas, imprint in me in a way that feels much more than memory. Insight is the word closest to what these slivers are – but insight of a depth and clarity, and a pleasureable-ness, that transcends the usual meaning of the word.

Sometimes ‘insights’ are triggered by something in the natural world – a swopping of places with an animal I’m watching – and sometimes they come vicariously through someone else’s insight, transmitted by their writing. These second hand ‘insights’ are no less powerful and imprint on me in the same way.  J.A  Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’ gave me so many the first time I read it, that I never got to the end, my reading slowed and slowed, continually blissed out by a stream of intense moments of perception-slip. The narrative voice of Richard Holmes’ ‘The Age of Wonders’ was a such a neon of insight that I closed the book after reading the first page and hugged it to my chest, out on the deck of a small research boat in the Sea of Cortez, where I was reading at 2am, on watch. Book induced insights bind to things in my own life too: whenever I dig in the garden I’m digging Susan Garland’s wooden doll from Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’; the Suffolk lanes where I grew up rekindle my own version of Alain Fournier’s ‘Lost Domain’, as alive inside me as my own blood, singing in me like a fever. My friend Julia Green’s dreamlike evocations of Scillonian beaches have melded with every Summer beach I walk on now. Occasionally, and especially blissfully, these insight moments can be shared, which feels like a mind meld. My son read ‘Matthew Kneale’s ‘English Passengers’ and for a while, the character Peevay was so alive in our house that all bad things were described as ‘Piss poor blunt spears’.

Some of the most intense fault-line shifts have come from the writing of my old friend Richard Mabey. Its the combination of the natural world, which already mainlines my consciousness, and his clarity of thought and effortlessly sharp imagination. I started a Richard book I hadn’t read beore, ‘The Ash and The Beech’,  last night and, as always, from the first sentence I was beguiled, captured, transported. Within minutes I had my first splash of cold water ‘Trees…are what dry land aspires to become’. There, in that one little phrase is the whole of ecological succession, terminal moraine to ringing oak wood, time lapsed elegantly into one, portable sentence; a perspective bigger, longer, wider than my own, presented with surgical precision blended with poetic punch; meaning layered like the horizons in a deep soil.

Richard’s ability to step outside time, and give me this ecological history in a single heart stopping idea returned me, suddenly, to the nest above Berkely Road, and made me think again, ‘what would it be like to be born in a nest’. But this time I think I might be ready to do something more with that idea than hold it. I think the seed of a picture book just germinated.

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