Monday 28 September 2009

dama dama ruminate

'To look at [animals in dreams] from an underworld perspective means to regard them as carriers of soul, perhaps totem carriers of our own free soul or death soul, there to help us see in the dark. To find out who they are and what they are doing there in the dream, we must first of all watch the image and pay less attention to our own reactions to it' (James Hillman).

My first class in a new job in a new university on the edges of the city. Six hours in a studio exploring the topic of animals. We talk of animal encounters, fears, dreams. I tell the students about Joseph Beuys and the coyote, Marcus Coates' Dawn Chorus, Val Plumwood's crocodile attack in Australia, James Hillman's Dream Animals. They talk about cats and bugs and worms and arachnophobia, dog attacks, collisions with deers on the roads.

We look at some of Sam Easterson's short films about animal locomotion, in which he attaches tiny video cameras to the heads of wolves, bison, armadillos, sheep etc. We watch an episode of Creature Comforts about the circus, and our discussion hovers around the pros and cons of anthropomorphism.

Later, after a warm-up and some impromptu collective barking, I ask the students to work in small groups to make an animal appear in the studio.

During a short break I drink a coffee and smoke on a bench amongst trees at the back of the theatre building, about 40 metres from the thundering A road into central London. As I sit there immobile, thinking about the class, a young male deer approaches, limping badly. With its brown coat mottled with white spots, and its short antlers, it looks like an adolescent fallow buck - dama dama.

On its left rear haunch it has the grey scar tissue of a serious wound, a car accident or attack of some sort. It doesn't see me, and hobbles to within 5 or 6 metres, its left side towards me. It sniffs the air, and lowers its head to eat the grass. I can hear it chewing evenly, like a pony. Ruminant. It has extraordinarily beautiful eyes - much older than its body somehow - and a velvet top lip beneath its moist black nose.

Two terriers in a neighbouring garden have heard something and bark incessantly behind the fence; the deer ignores them completely, it's been here before and knows they can't get out.

With wide eyes and shallow breath I watch it closely, wanting its peacefulness in this rural/urban context to continue uninterrupted by fear. It munches the grass for a while, shakes its head, then turns its head to look me in the eye for a full 10 seconds without seeming to see me for anything like what I am, before walking off towards the trees, its head bobbing up and down as it limps. Then it's gone, and the traffic moves on relentlessly.

I go back into the studio wondering quite how we have conjured up this visitation, and what else the students will bring into appearance.


Some hours later, mid evening in a suburban London street. I sit in my car making a phone call, and a fox ambles up the road, thick tail horizontal, and stops beside my car. It sits in the road, scratches, watches, its ears focused on a point up ahead like antennae. It doesn't see me at all. When it stands up to move off up the road, I see that it has a limp in its right rear leg. It disappears silently, as discreet as a cat, a shadow blending into the shadows in someone's front garden.

The animals are out in force in London.
Some of them are limping.

Postscript - two weeks later: Another week, another class. After watching a longish section of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, we pause for a break after Herzog has listened to the sounds of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed by the bear.

Outside the door of the studio, some of the students find a dying pigeon. They come and tell me, and I go outside with them. A pigeon on the stones of the courtyard, a couple of yards from the door, with the back of its head severely and inexplicably damaged - shot away, or sliced somehow, or perhaps torn open by a bird of prey. It is silent and barely moving, thick red blood stiffening on its feathers. It's close to death, but we don't know what to do. T and I stand there shocked but unable to act: 'I can't do this', T says, 'I'm too much of a pussy'.

J quietly says he can 'dispatch' it, he knows how to do it. I pick it up in a ball of paper, and take it to a concrete kerb by a skip. J places it on the lip of the kerb, and calmly but decisively steps on its head. Crushes it. The body spasms. J says it's normal, the death throes, it's what they always do. He places the body in the skip, and wipes his shoe on the tarmac.

Photo at top: still from a Sam Easterson video - a bison's reflection of itself in water as it drinks

Sunday 6 September 2009

patient pulse

A walk along the coastline towards the former fishing community of Hallsands, part of a series of walks to bid farewell to Devon and the sea as we prepare to move to the city. Torcross to Beesands to Hallsands, the Start Point lighthouse in the distance as our guide line.

The village is perched on the rocks at the sea's edge, long since deserted and all but erased by a storm in January 1917. A few houses still standing, two of them intact and inhabited; one of them is called, erm, 'Seaview'. Most of the structures are now no more than shattered shells. A pathway disappears abruptly into an abyss above the water.

The sea's like oil today, barely moving. Hard to imagine its ferocity.

Below is a fragment of a long text I wrote for and with Cupola Bobber, as part of series of 'waves' that are reproduced in Stephen Fiehn and Tyler Myers's poster-sized 'reading companion' to their current performance Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me.

The trigger for this fragment was Hallsands, a place that has lingered in my imagination since childhood when I first visited this coastline with my parents.
Elsew/here a fleet of steam dredgers remove tons of granite and flint shingle from the seabed beneath the cliffs to provide material for a new sea wall further down the coast. God-fearing fishermen with furrowed brows look on from their village at the foot of the cliffs, wondering what repercussions this might have, this ‘tampering with nature’, this modern arrogance to dream of ‘playing god’. No good will come of it, they say. Look at them: they couldn’t navigate a turd around a pisspot, they say.

Some years later ferocious winter storms whip the sea into a frenzy, and the slate sky is thick with spindthrift, like a snow storm. As dusk falls, towering black waves blast away at the unprotected village. Never seen anything like it, they say, like the end of the world. Overnight most of the community’s buildings are devastated, gouged and pulped to dust by the walls of driving water. The whitewashed slate-roofed fishermen’s cottages, all of them decapitated and ground down. The small grey stone inn, its fireplace doused forever. The workshop for making lobster pots and mending nets. The stables and piggery. The chapel. The tiny Post Office shop. The village hall, for community meetings and wedding receptions and evenings of songs and shanties.

Remember? ‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by / And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking / And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking’.

All dust now, carried away tirelessly by the sea. Even the beach is gone.

Every now and then deep in the churning bay, minute sandy particles and splinters fleetingly reconfigure to form the skeletal outlines of what they were once part of – a shed, a kitchen, the furniture of a bedroom – before a fresh undersea gust tears through these ghostly outlines, shattering them anew, and the grains disperse and disappear into the ocean’s depths.

On this journey, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.

Cupola Bobber's Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me premiered in Chicago earlier in the summer, and will be performed at PS122 in New York in late September. It is due to tour in Britain next year. For further details of Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me: A Reading Companion, and to order a copy, see here