Posts Tagged ‘sacrifice’

I am at the council recycling depot, wanting to recycle some books, but the book recycling thing is full. On enquiring, the high-vis man thinks me stupid. “Chuck them in the waste card and paper, then,” he says, like the answer is obvious, and I suppose it is. But he doesn’t understand; these books are important, and must be recycled, as books. I have no idea if that is indeed the function of the book recycling thing, but have persuaded myself it is for, though I do not want to see them on my shelves any more, I cannot have them actually, knowingly, destroyed. The knowledge in these books, though precious and hard won by the toil and intellect of centuries, is no longer relevant to me, though I have clung to them for forty years, thinking that it was. Destruction is, perhaps, the more powerful symbol, a truer sacrifice, and though I resist it with all my being, the fates seem to agree – I mean, the book recycling thing being full.

Here I am, then, adding my old engineering textbooks to a mountain of card and paper, which will go for pulp. Mathematics, Metallurgy, Principles of Engineering Production, Mechanics of Solids, Electrical Machinery, Thermodynamics, Hydraulics, Control Theory,…

In some cases, I knew the authors. They lectured in the technical colleges of the industrial towns, where I studied. They were remarkable men, at the top of their field, nearing retirement, and, it being forty years ago, I suppose they are all gone now. I was to use this knowledge to change the world. I was to design bridges, ships, aeroplanes. I was to work on hydroelectric schemes, and bring power to remote parts. I was to invent something that would save lives.

Instead, I settled into a big organisation, did a bit of this, and a bit of that. I did my time, commuted forty miles a day, day in day out, built a pension, and then I retired. But I was always going to come back to these books, one day. I was going to study them anew, do them the justice they deserved. I was going to lecture a little, part-time, bring on the next generation. But the world changed, grew strange and did not need me any more. The mould gathered upon them, and their knowledge atrophied for want of use, both by me and out there. There is always this perennial political waffle of building a high-skills, high-tech economy, but the truth is different and lacks the white-heat optimism of the nineteen-sixties. Engineering, and in particular, manufacturing engineering, always boils down to the price of a pair of hand, so engineering in the west became a case of getting someone else to do it for us, and why not, since they do it so well? And cheaper.

Our technical colleges don’t call themselves by that name any more. They prefer far fancier titles. Yet I had begun to notice how the graduates from these places could not communicate their ideas, had no aptitude for visualising three-dimensional space from the two dimensions of an engineering drawing, let alone create a drawing themselves. The fag-packet sketch, much maligned, but in fact a high bandwidth means of communication among its initiates, was a thing of the past, as were its initiates. But it is not a handicap now. Be you a graduate of anything, you are on the fast tracks to management, and the supervision of all things by spreadsheet and email which, I admit, is the way of the material world, and different to the one I knew and trained for.

And on a more personal level, I recognise these have always been books for the first half of life, which is about establishing oneself in that material world, or such as it was for me at the time. It is about education, work, relationships, progeny, house, home. The second half of life is about meaning, and entering now the last quarter of it, I feel I should be making more progress with meaning, than I am. I have inklings, but they are fickle, and too easily eclipsed by everyday narrowness. And these books are no help in that respect.

With the books gone, I drive a little way to a country park. It was once a piece of open country with a pretty river, lakes, and woodland. Now it is an amenity, replete with multicoloured signage, waymarkers and dog-poo bins. It’s a midweek morning, there are people, and the usual riot of dogs. I give them all the slip, and penetrate deep into the ancient parts of the woodland. I want to take pictures of anemones, in a place where I know they grow in profusion. Anemones grow slowly, and do not take well to the new-fangled. We have much in common.

I find the spot, and the sun comes out, as if to join in my enthusiasm. But then: “No memory card”, says the camera. I have left it in my computer at home. I do this a lot, so always carry a spare in my wallet. Feeling smug in my forethought, I slip the spare into the camera. “Cannot read memory card”, it says. “Choose another.”

The card is a dud. There will be no photography today. I will have to ride the present moment, instead of trying to freeze it. The anemones are beautiful, white, and an ever so delicate purple, trembling in the breeze. A line of poetry comes, unbidden:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,…

I have checked Google-box, and it does not appear I have acquired the line by cryptamnesia. It is a genuine opening from the muse, and, on the face of it, somewhat morbid. But I sense it is not meant to be so. Indeed, I feel the challenge is that I should work it into something positive, something like the latch to a gate of meaning. Either that, or it is a chastisement for being so down in the mouth myself today.

A heron rises from the riverbank. It has no sense of mortality, lives in a permanent now, until the moment it doesn’t. We’re different. We awaken to self consciousness, to an awareness of the impermanence of things, including the span of our own lives. And our lives can seem as fragile and delicate, and trembling as the anemones. Then there’s this sense of the past filling up, and so much of it forgotten, like Newton’s laws of motion, like dust behind the settee,… And then the future getting thinner, as the present moment accelerates, towards our end. The philosophies I have read do seem rather pessimistic on this score, or at least as much as I understand them – philosophy not being my grounding, and possessing a vocabulary I find rather difficult to grasp. Poetry though? Yes, I was writing poetry, even as I studied engineering, and have always believed that only through poetry, or other genuine acts of creativity, do we approach the harbingers of true meaning. And then it is by disengaging from the narrowing structure of the material world, and the intellect, and allowing something else to speak, through us.

I do not like destroying books, which is why I still have too many, some of them from childhood. But in this case, a burden is lifted, I think. As for that first line, the best I can do is meditate upon it.

Thanks for listening.

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The morning draws on and the sky becomes a deeper grey, while the air drifting down the valley grows cooler and not so humid. A change is coming. The sycamore leaves in the deep of the wood begin to show their backs, a paler green lending contrast to the shadow, and I smell centuries of life rising, centuries of decay and renewal. There will be rain.

I descend the bank to a narrow ledge by the river, along which there runs a sketchy path. I follow it downstream, nosing through low branches to a hidden bend, half remembered, and to a broad shelf where there lies a ring of rounded river-washed stones, and the remains of a recent fire. It’s hard to believe it’s still here. I built this ring as a boy, here on this dry bank – nothing combustible close by, nothing to risk a fire getting out of hand in the dry season.

I’ve thought of this place over the years. In the meantime, some other soul has adopted it, a sympathetic soul too; there is no litter, no orange peel, or chocolate wrappers to disturb the harmony of the wood – just the scent of those centuries, and the ever present rippling of the peaty Rye.

I gather dry grasses and twigs, then set them in the ashes contained by the ring, and I light them, then add more fuel to the flames and while the fire grows, I take out a screwdriver and dismantle the gun. The stock comes off easily and I lay it across the fire. It steams for a while, as if in disbelief, then darkens suddenly and begins to burn. Before removing the barrel, I cock the spring to make sure time will ruin it. Then I take off the telescope and unscrew the focusing lens to expose the delicate graticule and its adjustment.

The river runs slower here, bulging out to a hundred feet or more, and slowing to a ponderous glide as it takes the bend, so that towards the far and inaccessible bank there is an almost stagnant pool bottomed by deep silt. I toss the telescope into the middle of it, then the mechanism of the spring and cylinder. The barrel I lay between two rocks and strike it with a hefty stone, bending it. Then it follows the rest of the gun into the silty pool,… and is gone.

I remember the gun as an accurate weapon. More than that, the gun represents for me the lore of the wood. It belongs to a time beyond the ken of today’s children. But the days of guns in Durleston Wood are over, and it’s better it should meet its end here by my own hand, than be sold on, perhaps to fall into the hands of a misanthropic teenager, to become corrupted as a breaker of windows and a killer of cats.

Guns mean something else entirely to people these days.

It’s partly this sentiment that has brought me back to the wood, but there’s something else, something in the ritual I do not immediately understand. It is a sacrifice of course, an offering. It is a letting go, the sending of a ripple into the past, so the past might offer something back to me, now.

It’s then, glancing up from the flames, I realize I am being watched. It’s a woman, dark skinned, gaunt, crouching perfectly still among the sleepy balsam on the opposite bank. I had thought myself alone. Suddenly though I’m looking across the silty waters of the Rye into a pair of eyes, watching me.

How long has she been there? What must she be thinking?

I call over : “Hello?”

But she takes fright and is gone, snatched back into the shadow of the wood. And for a moment, above the thickly lapping sound of the river, there comes the sound of a chain being dragged.

From In Durleston Wood.

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