Canal walk: Swallows

(During the summer of 2014, I got into the habit of walking the seven miles, along the canal, from Aynho warf to Cafe Nero in Banbury town centre for breakfast every Saturday morning. I remember the weather as being mostly perfect and these walks took on an unexpected magic and significance. This is one of a few of pieces of writing that came out them.)

15th April 2021

A few weeks into these walks it suddenly occurred to me that something was missing.  It was summer but there were no swallows.  Even over the canal, where you would expect flies to abound, there were none.  But of course, we get used to this.  The constant news of species decline. The degradation of the natural environment through pollution or ever-expanding housing, it goes on and on, oppressing and saddening.  Perhaps, to an extent, we ignore this sort of news, and perhaps, to an extent, we are right to do so. Why shouldn’t we?  We have, after all, to live in a world over which we have negligible control. We must ‘keep smiling’ and go on being at least reasonably effective in everyday life, so the ability to ignore bad news is maybe a necessary defence mechanism.

I was listening to the radio the other day, there was a discussion about the plastic pollution of our beaches and seas. How do we reconcile our romantic image of the sea with such news? The sea, a place of escape; fathomless and poetic, the realm of adventure and heroic deeds and of a refreshing otherness.  How do we reconcile such feelings and images with the possibility that the seas are irreversibly polluted with plastic? I say ‘possiblity’ because I find it impossible to accept that the seas and the beaches are actually irreversibly polluted with plastic.  PLASTIC! Of all the possible pollutants, plastic somehow seems the worse. Not only in a practical, scientific sense, because it does not break down, but also in a poetic or metaphorical sense.  In plastic we have managed to unite images of cheapness and tackiness with immortality. By polluting the sea with plastic, we seem to have injected poison right into the heart of one of the most potent of life’s well-springs.  The ‘idea’ of plastic seems to pollute the ‘idea’ of the sea in even more complex and harmful ways than real plastic pollutes the real sea.

This distinction of ‘ideas’ as a thing apart from their physical counterparts, seems interesting to me.  Of course, at a mundane level it is inevitable; we can never know a physical object in its entirety and so we must always work with an abstraction of it. Such abstracted ideas, however, are often more complex and multi-dimensional than the thing itself.  For example, our idea of the sea, as we have seen, is likely to be far more than just the sum of our scientific knowledge of it. It will include our personal and cultural associations at least.  It is therefore not surprising that such an ‘idea’ has characteristics and behaviours which engender reactions far beyond those of the real object. 

Mixing up the internal and subjective with the external and objective in this way is practically unavoidable.  Even colour, which we cheerfully think of as a property of an external object, is, in truth, created entirely by our brains. The same being true of sound and the other sense impressions. The kingfisher, for example, is not blue and red, but colourless; the illusion of blue and red is created by our brains and projected onto the bird.  We project not just sense perceptions such as colour and sound, but more complex phenomena such as feelings thoughts and emotions.  To one person a sea bird colony appears a towering affirmation of chaotic but wonderful life, to another it is nothing but a smelly mess of squawking birds. Both are no doubt projecting some internal and probably unexamined element of themselves onto the external object.  Even wilder or more abstract projections can be formed.  We may look at nature and see love, or God, or a violent threat that needs to be subdued, or anything else for that matter, and because projection is often largely unconscious, we may feel such things to be objective reality; that the thing really has these properties, and be incredulous that others see things differently.

Is this good? Like a therapist’s patient, should we be encouraged to recognise these projections for what they are and ‘take them back’, relieving the objects of the burden of our expectations? Should we just allow the birds to be birds and the sea to just be the sea?  Extremely easy to say, and maybe this is what science does; looks at what is left after we have withdrawn all our projections. And of course, it works.  We sit back, in the large part, confidently expecting scientists to solve our problems, be they outbreaks of new diseases, global food shortages, or the development of biodegradable plastics and, with luck, we will not be disappointed. But there are difficulties and dangers here too.  Science is brilliant at solving problems and generally improving life at a practical level, but the overall picture of existence it builds can seem bleak. To the extent that, for some, it is hard to live with. 

This conflict between our subjective view of the world and what science tells us is not new. Perhaps the best-known expression was the romantic poet Keats’ accusing Isaac Newton of un-weaving the rainbow by explaining it in terms of prisms and the composition of light.

Is there an analogy here? One of the guidelines for building cages, or should I say enclosures, in modern zoos is that they should be such that the captive animal is able to ‘express its natural behaviour’. Birds should be able to fly, monkeys to climb and, presumably, hippos to wallow.  Is one of the problems with science that it seems too bare a cage; a concrete rectangle maybe, in which our need for nutrition and air is recognised, but with no facility for us to express our imaginative, meaning-hungry natures?

I don’t know.  Sometimes it seems like this to me, and that, to change metaphor, scientists are like miners; in that they go down to a dark and inhospitable place to bring back substances of practical use to us all. At other times the contrary seems true, and I would agree with the physicist Richard Feynman when he said that (to paraphrase); to think that science in some way undermines aesthetic sense is ‘a little bit nutty’.          

Attempting to reconcile these viewpoints seems simultaneously interesting, difficult, and important.  But this is the good thing about walking, it gives you time to think about such things.

Regarding the swallows (and maybe we can hope it will be the same with plastic) it was not as bad as it might have been.  A week or so later, I was walking up to the lock gates at Kings Sutton and there they were, low over the water, twisting swooping and diving, with that characteristic pattern of flight which seems to have been laid down in our consciousness over a lifetime of summers. Slender wings the colour of mussel-shells or summer twilight and under the chin the hint of summer warmth and of the autumn to come. Coincidentally, just as I saw them, the lock gates above which they were flying were opened and for a moment it felt as both the emotional release of seeing the swallows and the water released by the lock gates flooded out together over the countryside. 


The gap is joined
The spark flies
The lock above the old bridge opens
Summer floods
The swallow has made the cut

(‘cut’ is a country name for canal)

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