The Timber Tide
Glory be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim
Gerard Manley Hopkins
It is difficult not to admire the beachcombing life, even to yearn for it. The inventive spirit of the beachcomber lies deep in our race memory, scanning with some ancient animal instinct to hunt with the eye the line of tide wrack, searching for any useful or interesting item, anything with which to improvise, delight or create.
Significant objects I have found while beachcombing include The Yellow 8-Knots Buoy and The Sea Leopard. What is a sea leopard, I hear you wonder. The Sea Leopard was the shark-fishing boat which belonged to Gavin Maxwell, bought unsighted and inadvisedly for his doomed enterprise, Isle of Soay Shark Fisheries, the subject of Harpoon at a Venture. The Sea Leopard is a noble animal of the imagination, with a noble association in the poet-adventurer collective memory; and yet it was moved by fate, with a choice of anywhere else in the world to go to, to come to me, here on our beach.
It was on one of my typical beachcombing excursions, which always accompany some other greater purpose of foraging or greyhound exercising at the same time, that my eye was scanning the line of tide wrack when it alighted on some tiny yellow creature tangled and buried among the seaweed. Untangling this thing, it became clear that it was a small plastic leopard, obviously a homage to the original Sea Leopard, and coincidentally a dead- ringer for Chuffy, the brindle greyhound now porpoising about the beach not far away, my own domestic sea leopard of a dog.
The Yellow 8-Knots Buoy was washed up one morning when the beach was absolutely clean smooth sand, all shingle having been removed by a recent tide, as happens here. The effect of the bright yellow on the empty beach was of a work of art; a famous photograph perhaps, or a painting with abstract tendencies. I dragged the The Yellow 8-Knots Buoy off the beach and tied it to the post of the sign which warned of 'DANGER NO FOOTPATH', by the footpath at the edge of the cliff. It became a local landmark, a marker buoy showing the way onto the beach, and a sitting place. When someone found a small piece of gravestone with part of its recognisable but illegible inscription intact, they placed it at the base of the post, so that the 8-Knots Buoy then became a sort of visual memorial to that unknown person in the minds of the locals, and as people sat on it and looked out to sea, perhaps they wondered about him, or her. Then one night the whole lot was unsentimentally washed away, so that was that. The Yellow 8-Knots Buoy must be somewhere out there in the world; it was quite big and very tough.
It is surprising how quickly and completely nature can transform a place visually; occasionally, as part of some natural disaster, more often in the course of a normal day: the 1953 flood; the 1987 storm; sunsets, lightning, rainbows, wind, fire, ice, snow. This sudden visual transformation happens quite regularly around our beach and cliff-top territory, and is difficult not to be held in thrall to the intriguing effects.
The white glare of fresh snow over the farmland, combined with a bright reflecting sea and a still-frozen beach, all reflected and exaggerated by the sun and the sky, is a particularly wondrous landscape to behold, and all the more so for its rarity. The effect is almost blindingly bright, but extraordinarily beautiful.
Not long ago, I was collecting firewood from a series of tides which had brought in quite a haul of small broken planks, perhaps from a smashed pallet or crate of some sort. I had stacked these under the cliff, and began to head back to the house with the first load, intending to return for the remainder as I find it more unpleasant to carry heavy loads than to make return trips (a terrible dilemma of survival which must have haunted our ancestors frequently). There was quite a breeze, but nothing out of the ordinary for an English beach in early spring, when suddenly there began a sort of whirlwind just ahead of me.
I had seen this kind of localised mini-tornado during a past adventure in Jordan, a desert adventure 'in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia' involving a group of forty nameless numbered Arab horses in Wadi Rum. Then, several mini-tornadoes had whipped up in separate places, all visible as clear columns of sand, cleanly sucked up into separate vortices from the surface, but moving around the desert like sandy whirling dervishes with that slightly wobbly wiggle you see on an imperfect potter's wheel; and all rather beautiful.
As is so often the case, this display of natural beauty also held within it a veiled threat. Only this time it was us, not the threat, who should have been veiled, as the whole of the immediate desert suddenly erupted into a full-blown sandstorm. We hunkered down with our faces and eyes wrapped up, huddled within the protection of our red-and-white kaffiyehs, and in that instant we understood completely why as shepherds we had worn tea-towels on our heads in nativity plays. The kaffiyeh is a practical item in sun and sandstorm, and makes a good drying-up cloth too.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the sandstorm stopped; but the whole landscape seemed a slightly different shape, disorientating and with a palpable warning unspoken in the air, along the lines of, if you were all alone here in this desert, you would be lost very soon, and you would die. Sudden remodelling of the landscape can occur in the sea of dunes of the Sahara, in which even the local Berbers and Bedouin can be fatally lost. But the romance of the Arabian sands became all the greater for our intimacy with those stinging grains, and we briefly basked in the high-drama-afterglow of the seasoned adventurer.
Armed with this vivid and quite exciting memory, I surveyed the little whirlwind before be on the beach with interest. But before I could say 'Salaam alaykum; yalla, yalla!' (as I believe is normal in a desert in a sandstorm), I was transported into the three-dimensional wide-screen version of the complete sandstorm scene, cast romantically in the role of Lawrence of Arabia himself, trudging through the bright ochres of the desert, leaning into the salt-wind lashing against my face, now almost invisible amid the all the sand in the air as it was blown up by the winds and whirlwinds. And again, after another few seconds of extreme visual transformation, it suddenly stopped; and I was back on a Suffolk beach, albeit a slightly different beach from the one I had left only minutes before. Scenes such as this are extraordinary to us, and yet so ordinary to nature. These rearranging events must occur frequently and without witness, as unseen as the avalanches in the silent high Andes.
These sudden visual transformations are not confined to any particular medium, as is evident from another recent 'visual event' from within our territory.
I was driving home over the reedbed road near Mardle Lane (to inject an authentic Suffolk flavour to the place in which this event occurred) when I came upon a gathering of vehicles, as if some frightful accident had befallen several people at the same time, and at the same corner. Imagining silent drownings and fen-like sinking cars, my mind began its machinations, think clearly what to do, and how most effectively to save someone from such a fate. Then I was brought to a halt by a crowd of people with enormous long lenses; as if they had spotted Prince William and his wife in the bulrushes, panting like a pair of harts heated in the chase, as it were. There were more of these long-lensed people arrayed all along the bank, so I followed the direction of their lenses.
Murmurations of starlings gathering to roost are quite a frequent sight here, and the best sightings are not necessarily the biggest, but the ones seen unexpectedly, or alone. Nevertheless, these people clearly knew that they were on to something big, and had evidently been alerted to it by sociable tweetings between each other. They were understandably transfixed by sight and noise of these unimaginable numbers of birds, swooping and swirling about in their giant amorphous forms, filling the skies; and I felt grateful to this bird-spotting tribe for not having had a terrible accident after all, but instead accidentally drawing my attention to this wonderful sight.
But while watching, the bird-spotters seemed at the same time distracted from actually looking, they were not observing this wonder of the natural world with complete immersion in the moment. Taunted by the tyranny of their telescopes and technology, and by the need to record rather than simply to see, to a man (and they were all men) they viewed the whole event through the distancing barrier of a lens, a very long lens, which somehow seemed a pity.
Blocked by all their cars, and disliking crowds invading my natural experiences, I nipped up Mardle Lane (a crucial locational detail after all) to escape these human hoards, who were by now themselves massing in the manner of a murmuration, but without the visual beauty.
In the wide skies over our cliff, the full visual effect of the murmuration became infinitely and engrossingly watchable. Enormous and ever-growing amoeba forms were lava-lamping and swirling, expanding here, then contracting and lengthening, then suddenly swooping in shoals and geometries of amorphous architecture in three dimensions all over the sky. No-one bumped into anyone, and no-one seemed to hesitate in their chosen path. We are told by osmosis that each bird has to look out for cues from the seven nearest others to know which way to go next. But while this may be true, it does no justice to the sheer poetry of the visual event and the experience. And after all that magnificence, a performance for no applause except their collective and individual survival, all the little birds went to bed.
If I hadn't been so grown-up I might have nearly cried at witnessing such pointless beauty. The famous illness of Monsieur Henri Beyle is a disorder acknowledged by medical science and known to history as Stendhal Syndrome. It identifies the symptoms suffered by aesthetes who are overexposed to beauty, who actually overdose on beauty, the original case being that of a man who was overwhelmed and rendered helpless by an overdose of Renaissance art in Florence. We must raise an imaginary glass to this man, for the effects of such extra-appreciation must have afflicted our ancestors since the first beauty-sensitive caveman-aesthete emerged from his lair, yet only now is it all right to secretly admit to being made to cry by the architecture of a Venetian church, or by the sight of a group of little birds putting themselves to bed. 'Stendhals Anonymous' must be the loveliest group of afflictees ever to assemble. I must join.
The nature of visual camouflage is a fascinating subject, with 'disruptive pattern' being the operative words. 'The art of not being seen' is all about breaking up the expected visual cues, so as not to isolate the individual in any given context, multiple-zebra-style; and it must be said that a brindle greyhound on a shingle beach does this most admirably. Nature is the absolute master of camouflage and disguise, but brindle is the artistic masterstroke. The fascinating aspect of brindle is that it can render a large an excitable dog invisible in so many different terrains, which is a great aid to a greyhound evading capture. The Army could learn from this.
Chuffy the Brindle Boy Greyhound is not the most disciplined of dogs at the best of times, so if he goes for a canter it can be somewhat disquieting, for not only does the 'canter' of an ex-racing greyhound (of 96 races'-worth of experience, not counting the training) cover the ground very efficiently, which does not mean fast as in a real sprint burst, but just a loping wolf-pace which is difficult to keep up with by any method other than top-gear Land Rovering. But being brindle, he also becomes invisible in the process of his loping, whether on plough or stubble, shingle or sand. He can even disappear in woodland. This is a remarkable visual feat for a dog. And a bloody annoying one. If aloud, he wood-runner way; water noughty buoy.
In the reedbeds, nature has given the bittern a similarly versatile brindled cloak, all painted with Vs, but this rare and elusive bird also performs a rather remarkable conjuring trick to make certain of the efficacy of his disguise. If the bittern is alarmed, the visual part of its defence is to stick its beak straight up vertically in a stunningly clever impersonation of a reed. Stuffed and mounted under a glass dome in a Victorian taxidermy collection, this might not be too impressive as a disguise; but once placed in situ in the reedbeds, I imagine it must be very effective. I don't know exactly how perfect his disguise is in context, because I've never actually spotted the bittern in the reedbeds, only flying heron-like in that general direction. Which rather proves the point.
While sandstorms, murmurations and the magical qualities of brindle are visual masterpieces in their own right, they are by definition part of nature's ongoing rhythms and rites. But occasionally, there occurs such a dramatic one-off visual drama that it stays in the collective memory for years, decades and even centuries; becoming a sort of folkloric local parable to be told and retold, warped and distorted by memory and exaggeration. The 1953 flood is one such event; the 1987 storm another. We have our own, more recent folkloric tale to tell; and it happened on the beach right under the Easternmost House.
One morning, the coastal people of East Anglia woke up to an extraordinary sight. The visual anomaly was spread along many miles, including all of the Suffolk coast, and in particular the whole unbroken length our beach. We have seen odd invasions before; of starfish, of jellyfish, and of a type of seaweed resembling lengths of ragged home-made linguine. But on this memorable occasion, we were greeted at dawn by what became known as The Timber Tide.
As we sea-people started to go about our habitual early-morning outdoor activities, dog-walking and animal feeding, we individually suddenly spotted it, each separately aghast, as if it was our own single discovery. Along the entire line of the last high tide, washed up overnight there was a ragged barricade of an unimaginable enormity of tangled lengths of sawn timber, all piled up and strewn about along the entire length of the beach, and stretching far beyond the distant vanishing points to north and south. That ship that had been reported as breaking up in the English Channel, and which we had rather forgotten about, had very evidently and finally broken up after all. And now, here on our beach, appeared to be the entire cargo of that ill-fated vessel.
At first we were all simply curious, like the bemused inhabitants of some Polynesian tribe of spear-fishermen who have just woken up to find Britannia unexpectedly moored to their jetty, and who are now being approached by the heavily-guarded and garlanded Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. Then there came a stage of amusement at the sheer visual spectacle arrayed before us. Finally, there came a kind of exhilaration, a wood-wonderment: we were lumber-drunk, plank-happy, beaming. It was amazing, and very, very primitive. The blood of our ancestors coursed through our veins.
Here, the moral dilemmas which might have presented themselves, seemed cleanly and simply absent. No-one had deliberately led the ship onto rocks to harvest its loot. There were no finished man-made products, no valuable components of industry, no packaging or labels marking anything as belonging to Someone Identifiably Else, no food, no clothes, not even any drugs or alcohol. Nothing to induce guilt at all. Just wood. Masses and masses of wood. Timber Galore.