The urban wild

Nocturne in Brown and Silver (Old Battersea Bridge) by James McNeill Whistler

After that unfortunate Long Covid interruption, I'd like to get back to recommending some favourite books on the subject of water. All of the books discussed so far have been set, largely, in the countryside or the wilderness, so today I'd like to recommend two interesting looks at urban waterways: Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, about the Thames as it passes through London; and Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, set among the canals of Birmingham.

Hidden Nature and Mudlarking

Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Battersea Reach) by James McNeill Whistler

A mudlark, the Cambridge Dictionary explains, is "someone who searches the mud near rivers trying to find valuable or interesting objects." Although we tend to think of mudlarks as figures out of the 18th and 19th centuries, there are still dedicated mudlarks today, and Lara Maiklem is one of them: irresistibly drawn to the tidal portion of the Thames, scouring the mud to find treasures, curiosities, and cast-offs full of stories about the past. Maiklem explains her unusual vocation like this:

Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler"It amazes me how many people don't realise the river in central London is tidal. I  hear them comment on it as they pause at the river wall above me while I am mudlarking below. Even friends who have lived in the city for years are oblivious to the high and low tides that chase each other around the clock, inching forward every twenty-four hours, one tide gradually creeping through the day while the other takes the night shift. They have no idea that the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet or that it takes six hours to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea.

"I am obsessed with the incessant rise and fall of the water. For years my spare time has been controlled by the river's ebb and flow, and the consequent covering and uncovering of the foreshore. I know where the river allows me access early and where I can stay for the longest time before I am gently, but firmly, shooed away. I have learned to read the water and catch it as it turns, to recognise the almost imperceptible moment when it stops flowing seawards and currents churn together briefly as the balance tips and the river is once more pulled inland, the anticipation of the receding water replaced by a sense of loss, like saying goodbye to an old friend after a long-awaited visit.

Drawing of the old Battersea Bridge by James McNeill Whistler x

Nocturne in Silver and Blue by James McNeill Whistler

"Tide tables commit the river's movements to paper, predict its future and record its past. I use these complex lines of numbers, dates, times and water heights to fill my diary, temptations to weave my life around, but it is the river that decides when I can search it, and tides have no respect for sleep or commitments. I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing in a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left some early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking on all hours and I obey, forcing myself out of a warm bed, pulling on layers of clothes and padding quietly down the stairs, trying not to wake the sleeping house....

"It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique. For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force. If the Seine in Paris were tidal it would no doubt provide a similar bounty and satisfy an army of Parisian mudlarks; when the non-tidal Amstel River in Amsterdam was recently drained to make way for a new train line, archaeologists recorded almost 700,000 objects, of just the kind we find in the Thames: buttons that burst off waistcoats long ago, rings that slipped from fingers, buckles that are all that's left of a shoe -- the personal possessions of ordinary people, each small piece a key to another world and a direct link to long-forgotten lives. As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tells the greatest stories."

Wapping by James McNeill Whistler

Mudlarking is an unusual and thoroughly engaging book, full of the history of the city, of the river, and of the quirky society of mudlarks drawn to the banks of the Thames, past and present. Maiklem is a wonderful raconteur, and a knowledgeable one. If the subject intrigues you, check out her London Mudlark Facebook page for pictures of her adventures and finds, like the one below:

Mudlarking finds. Photograph by Lara Maiklem.

Black Lion Warf, Wapping by James McNeill Whistler x

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler weaves memoir with nature writing, centred on the old canal system of Birmingham in the English West Midlands. It's the story of the unravelling of a heterosexual marriage, of slowly and cautiously coming out as gay, and of rebuilding a new life in the ruins of the old -- something many of us can relate to, even if the particulars of our dramatic life changes are different than the author's. 

Longing for solitude and immersion in nature, Fowler daydreams about running away to Bolivia or central Asia, but settles on an adventure closer to home: exploring the Birmingham Canal Network -- in the heart of the city and beyond its borders -- in an inflatable kayak. She romanticises neither the urban canals nor her own life choices, writing honestly and insightfully about each; and yet the resulting story has a raw beauty of its own. Fowler writes:

Symphony in Grey and Silver (The Thames) by James McNeill Whistler"The backwaters [of the Icknield Port Loop] fascinated me. At night, I dreamt of returning to it, swimming, running through the water or just floating back down the same stretch that runs after the boatyard. In those dreams I saw everything in great detail. 

"Nothing in that stretch was precious, not the abandoned day boats, the rubbish strewn in the water, the wayside weeds or framed views of urban wasteland beyond the broken factory facades. Nature there was a mixture of native and non-native. The weeds were growing straight out of heavy-metal pollution and were stunted or burnt by the effort. None of the trees showed the soft, new green of spring, but instead were flushed already with deficiencies, their trunks scarred by the battle of living there, their branches strewn with ribbons of plastic. As I returned to those images, I was already obsessed with and a little haunted by that landscape. I went back to do the loop again.

"It was as unsettled as I was. Its position was as temporal as mine. It was barely holding itself together: the canal sides were crumbling, the banks bursting with wild things ready to march into the water and claim new ground. That landscape couldn't quite decide what it was. It was wild, but not natural, it was old, but not old enough. Its riches kept changing or floating away. It belonged only to those who cared to claim it, outsiders, tenacious wildlife, the drunken, the homeless, the lost and me.

Symphony in Gray (Early Morning Thames) by James McNeill Whistler

"I have never been much for joining in or up. I liked people and I liked belonging, but I have always floated between identities. One foot here and the other there, ready to move on if the boundaries seem to be settling into something rigid. I like best the edges of society, of ecosystems, of friendships. I like the place that is both held on to and departed from. And this watery world was just that. For the first time in nine years, I'd found a bit of Birmingham to fall for and all my internal butterflies took flight with excitement.

"I felt the great pull of the unknown, of adventure, setting in: if a place that was just a few miles from the city centre could hold another world so strange an unsettled, what would the past reveal? The pastoral edges of the network didn't pull me half so much as the dirty great industrial heart and its drum-thumping factories."

Limehouse by James McNeill Whistler

Much later in the book, Fowler reflects on this passage of her life, and her obsession with the city's waterways while in the midst of seismic life change. She writes:

Little Wapping by James McNeill Whistler"Travelling on the canals is to carry out a series of small rituals, to bear witness to the way light changes on the surface of the water or a seed head disperses and where next year's plants will appear. The best journeys are always worth repeating, and that is how I feel about my favourite stretches of the canals. I like those cathedrals of green trees in the suburbs. I like them in the spring when the fresh new green unfurls. I loved them in the autumn when those buttery leaves swirled around my paddle, and how in the stark of winter I see their bare bones swaying in the wind as I feel the chill of the water beneath me. 

"I see now that this journey on the water was about finding an external correlation to my inner world, a fluid space that would allow me to make my own changes.

"The canals will change and change again. Those metal hulls will sink or be dragged out, the edges tidied, graffiti removed. I hope there will always be kingfishers and butterflies to watch; I hope later generations will watch herons spear fish and lean over the edge of their boats to peer at pike. I hope that everyone has the sense to leave a little of the edges wild."

Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Cremorne Lights) by James McNeill Whistler

We've talked about urban magic in a previous post, and how the cities, too, contain rich pockets of nature and of enchantment. Mudlarking and Hidden Nature, in their different ways, are celebrations this; and of the ways the wild flows through all our lives, no matter where we live.

Nocturne in Grey and Silver by James McNeill Whistler

The art today is one of my favourite American artists, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a brilliant colourist whose tonal paintings were both widely admired and deplored by the 19th century art critics. (His work rarely invited mild reactions, nor did his pugnacious personality.) Whistler was born and raised in New England, but also spent part of his youth in Russia and London due to his father's work as a railroad engineer. He was educated at West Point Military Academy and worked as a military draftsman before deciding to devote himself to art. He then set sail for Paris at the age of 21, where he studied in the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre and fell in with a social circle that included Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire. He eventually settled down in London, where he spent most of his adult life.

Although today Whistler is perhaps best known for his figurative work (and his iconic portrait of his mother), he also made many paintings, drawings, and etchings of the River Thames over forty years.  Art scholar Angeria Rigamonit di Cuto notes: "He began his explorations in the east of London, at Wapping, Limehouse and Greenwich, before moving upriver, his cosmopolitan background and outsider status perhaps easing his access to the mean streets of the docklands (among 'a beastly set of cads', according to his friend George du Maurier)."

You can see more of his distinctive artwork here.

Nocturne in Grey and Gold by James McNeill Whistler

The passages above are quoted from Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, 2019) and Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017); all rights reserved by the authors. The titles of the Whistler paintings and etchings above can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The south Devon coast  Sept 2021

I'm back in the studio today, not entirely recovered from a Long Covid relapse but doing a little better (touch wood). I'm taking it day by day at the moment -- which may continue to affect the Myth & Moor posting schedule, so please bear with me.

With Howard off on the Pilgrimage for Nature, I've been thinking a lot about climate change; so let's start the week with some songs about, and for, the world around us....

Above: "The Sadness Of The Sea" by singer/songwriter Martha Tilston, based in Cornwall. The song, she says, "was inspired by how I feel when I see the plastic that washes up on the shores near my home. However, it is also a song of thanks to the beauty of our natural world. " It appears on The Tape, the soundtrack album for Tilston's new film of the same name.

Below: "Half Wild" by singer/songwriter Kitty Macfarlane, from Somerset. She writes: "This song is a reminder that we are made of the same matter and mettle as much of the natural world, governed by the same laws and rhythms. We share the sea's chaotic balance of strength and fragility, and like the breaking waves, it's within our power to either leave a mark or to leave no trace." The song can be found on her album of the same name, released earlier this year.

Above: "Undersong" by Salt House (Jenny Sturgen, Lauren MacColl, and Ewan McPherson), based in Scotland. The song appeared on their gorgeous album Undersong in 2018. Their new album, Huam, is just as good, and I listen to both of them constantly.

Below: "Air and Light," from Jenny Sturgeon's exquisite album The Living Mountain (2020) -- inspired by Nan Shepherd's book of the same name, a classic of Scottish nature writing.

Above: "This Forest," a haunting folk tale of a song by The Rheingans Sisters (Rowan and Anna Rheingans), based in Sheffield. It's from their excellent third album, Bright Field (2018), with animation by Harriet Holman Penney.

Below, because we all need healing, both humankind and the more-than-human world: "Dina Dukhio" by Balladeste (American violinist Preetha Narayanan and British cellist Tara Franks), from their new album Beyond Breath. This one, they say, "is inspired by a raga-based Indian devotional melody from the Sai Lineage, which in essence translates as ‘overcoming sorrow.’ We wanted to explore the idea of ritual and letting go in this film following the experience of the last year and a half."

And here's one more, dedicated to Howard and his companions on the Long Walk to the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow:

"Walking Song" by singer/songwriter Jon Boden, based in Sheffield. It's from his remarkable new album Last Mile Home (2021). You'll find the lyrics here.

The Pilgrims for Nature (photograph by Jolie Booth)

Photographs: The south Devon coast in early September; and the Nature Pilgrims in Oxfordshire last week (the latter picture by Jolie Booth).


Pilgrimage for Nature update

The video above features the beautiful letter from artist/author Jackie Morris for the pilgrims walking all the way from London to the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, my husband Howard being one of them. Please take some quiet time to listen to Jackie's heart-felt, hope-filled, inspiring words. "It's the hardest thing, in these days, to hold on to hope," she says, "but it must be done."

Jolie Booth (co-creator of the pilgrimage) writes: "Jackie Morris kindly gifted us with seven hand-painted labyrinth stones, a hand-drawn illustrated book that she wrote to the pilgrims, which we read out at the opening ceremony in London on Saturday. The Letters to the Earth campaign will be running workshops along our pilgrimage route for different communities to write and deliver their messages for a better future to the leaders of the world as we walk. What gifts! What magic."

Visit the Pilgrimage For Nature blog or Facebook page for further updates, photos, and the like. The project also has Instagram and Twitter pages that are now getting underway. For information on how to participate in the walk, even from far away, go here. And please note that there is a new fund-raiser going to keep the pilgrims on the road (to replace other funding that didn't come through). If you have some pennies to spare, please give them your support. 

Pilgrims for Nature, 4 September, 2021

Above, a photograph of the pilgrims in London on Saturday. Jolie writes: "The bags all packed and ready to go…we finally meet at Tower Hill. We’re filled with excitement and nervousness as we take the step into the unknown. From today we walk north, filled with curiosity and love." 

May the weather gods continue to smile on them, may all the pilgrims stay safe in these difficult times, and may the work they are doing on behalf of Mother Earth be fruitful.

Seven stones for the Nature Pilgrimage painted by Jackie Morris

For those who worry about Covid safety (and I am one of them!), the pilgrims are in a Covid bubble, testing regularly, and there are protocols in place for meeting and working with others along the route. 


A further update

Terri Windling and Tilly Windling-Gayton, Dartmoor, 2021

I'm having a bit of Long Covid flare-up. No surprise, really. It happens less regularly now than a year ago, but still flares up if I get over-tired...and this last week has been a doozy, between Tilly's emergency vet visits and getting Howard packed up and off on pilgrimage. 

Now Howard's on the road, Tilly is doing better, and my body seems to be insisting that I take some time to take care of myself. I'll be back to Myth & Moor very soon, with those final "water book" recommendations and more.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Leon Tolstoy once wrote: ''A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor - such is my idea of happiness.'' 

Mine too.