Monday, 3 February 2014

Under the Sun

Yesterday we had the first dry Sunday for many weeks, though it feels like months.  I'm talking about rain, of course, not alcohol.  In the words of the amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, OMG, didn't it rain, children? The day started out fine, turned ominously grey in the early part of the afternoon, but ended up cold and clear, with blue sky and bouyant white clouds.  We walked around the humps, ditches and slopes of Twyford Down for several hours, checking out the changes wrought by the weather.

As well as unceasing torrential rain, there have been rushing mighty winds, too.  It's been positively biblical, people!  Now, soil is always thin on downland, and tree-roots have to get what purchase they can on the broken chalk beneath.  They're pretty tenacious, so it takes quite a puff to topple some gnarly old thorn off its perch.  The thorough soaking has softened the ground and loosened and lubricated the rock, though, and at various places we found trees blown over, still clutching their disk of chalk rubble. 

This reminded me of another day, one of those days you experience in your youth that stick in your memory as a hint of some profound secret, in a sort of reverse anamnesis, perhaps, a remembering of the future.

Once, a very long time ago in my student years, after an all-nighter which had left those of us still standing drained but unwilling to break the spell, we all crammed into a friend's car and drove out to nearby Woodstock to visit Blenheim Palace, the stately home of the Dukes of Marlborough. There had been a violent gale earlier in the month, and the weather was very frosty.  What we saw at Blenheim was a spectacle worthy of Orlando.

The ornamental lake was frozen over.  A bright sun was conjuring a mist from it, and in and out of the rising pillars of haze a dozen or more skaters were circling, wrapped in scarves and winter coats.  The scrape and scratch of their skates made a continuous knife-sharpening sound, punctuated by echoing laughs, squeals and shouts, and the occasional flump of someone slipping over.  I remember thinking that, if only I had a camera, this would make a very memorable picture.

As we walked further into the grounds, it became clear that quite a few trees had been blown over in the storm.  The elms in the park, apparently, had been planted in the battle order of the first Duke's encounter with the French at Blenheim in 1704.  The devastation on that frosty morning gave a rather more realistic impression of the butcher's bill that day.  Everywhere, stately trunks lay sprawled over and broken, each propped up by a 10 foot diameter disk of roots and soil at the bottom, like the base of an enormous model tree.

I was also reminded of the morning after the Great Storm of 1987, when -- after a sleepless night listening to the shrieking wind trying to dismantle my house -- I looked out of the kitchen window, only to find my view blocked by next door's apple trees lying across my yard, in a tangle of fence posts, broken branches and a deep drift of windfall apples and leaves.  The sound of many chainsaws starting up and the absence of traffic noise began to impinge on my foggy brain, and I slowly realised that something out of the ordinary had taken place during the night.

That morning, too, I remember, was cold and clear, with blue sky and bouyant white clouds.  I suppose there comes a point in life when pretty much everything reminds you of something else, somewhere else, some other time.  It would be a shame, though, wouldn't it, if there truly was nothing new under the sun?

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child?
O that record could with a backward look
Even of five hundred courses of the sun
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
   O sure I am, the wits of former days
   To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 59

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