Sphurana – seeing with new eyes

Peter Owen Jones, Anglican Priest, author and television presenter

Published in JHH 18.3-Shifting the paradigm

The boy stood before the water. He was looking for fish weaving sunlight, their red and yellow fins, they ran in shoals, moving as one entity. He had a small plastic rod and a cheap reel wrapped with heavy line and in his tackle box orange topped floats, hooks and small droplets of lead shot split to the base. He used to fish with Julian and they would run down the bank, carrying a loaf of bread and a keepnet bigger than both of them. Julian was full of tales, he was a proper farm boy, he never felt cold and never got sick. He was a good teacher as well; this is how you tie a hook, this is how you cast the line. And the line went into a world full of more tales. The best of them was Mr Crabtree goes fishing. It wasn’t a hardback and the boy begged for it for Christmas and marvelled at the essence of the pictures of reeds and ponds, carp and the elegant barble.

There were more tales still, tales of the great hunters there in the thin papered comics, white men in white helmets fighting lions and bringing down elephants. And there was Jack Hargreaves on the black and white television shooting rabbits and tying flies. And the boy did not know it but he was easy under the apple bows, green and carefree and famous among barns. These were the last words whispered by abundance, the last days of the lanes full and narrowed with grasses and at night lit with glowing worms, the days of hares and choughs and the symphony of mornings. The hunt riding freely over the hill and the horn through the autumn trees.

There was nothing other than abundance, the earth gave and the boy took without having to reason, to justify any act of killing. He was bloodied by the butterflies, by the small and perfect quartz-like eggs there in feathered bowls of nests. Taking a pin and holding the shell so gently he would make a hole in this jewel at either end and blow out the tiny yolks and running whites. They were not always there, sometimes he saw a heart still beating and often threads of blood, the beginnings of a thrush or a warbler. Once in while he would strike the line too late and the hook would be down the gullet and he would pull and the fish would die. A small silver body, not hurting now, there were always more fish. There was always enough, always more. It was a brimming world. And he took his milk from this breast from the wren that raised him, from the pike for whom he made his wooden spears, from the fires that burnt the ants to ash. He took his wounds from the bones of rooks and the lines of slaughtered foxes there on the pheasant pen, the dead fledglings in the nest. From the oiled birds of the Torrey Canyon, and the corpses of fish strewn in their hundreds on the banks of the river slipping through the fields.

It was never maths, or history, or even art that made him. Not the understanding of vowels and the leaden lines of learning. When he returned to the water there was no one to tell him to drop the line deeper. He learned how to wait, what the rising bubbles said, to sense, to sharpen, to be still there on the bank, to learn the lies of foxes, he spoke about none of this. Of how when his voice dropped the shelters in the woods he knew turned to bowers. Carp would take the line, the bait on the hook, there would be no hesitation, the float simply disappeared and he struck and met the full force of the fish, his guile against theirs. When to rest, when to wind, when to wait, when to reel. All this honed over millennia, honed with cordage and hooks hewn from bone this knowledge, this way settling in the cells, in the nostrils, in the eyes. Standing before the water he could smell the fish now, even in the rain. This was not something he learned, it was a sense he already had, he was born with it.

Jack Hargreaves looked old in colour and it was there in the title of his programme ‘The old country’. It was as the young man now noticed becoming a lost land, a lost language, the shepherd’s count turned into prose. Yain, Tain, Eddera, Peddara, Pitt. The ditches along the fields began to clog with green carpets of algae, the copses quietened and the night lights slowly went out from the hedgerows from the untidy places. The mink escaped from cruel farms and killed nearly all the water voles. The roads filled with more cars and more cars claimed more roads along which lay the dead. Badgers, deer, hedgehogs in their thousands, bullfinches, moths and swans. And all the while the screens proclaimed progress, machines for washing, machines for drying, machines for counting and writing, yes this was tomorrow’s world, a world of warmth, of light and leisure. Great sparkling cities of glass, driverless cars and trips to the moon. Now he hunted money, he became a warrior cutting and thrusting, his senses hired to the city kings, buying and selling the earth, selling the tigers, selling the whales, selling the moles and shrews, selling the air, selling the seas. This was success, to own the forests, to own the birds, to own the rivers, to mould the world into your own image. The man, the king, the great hunter.

Even then there were faint voices crying that the woods were turning silent. That the air was sickening, the butterflies were dying but the project of progress turned faster still. The trading halls and city hubs could not hear them. And the man feasted on the wealth of the earth, now he was flying. Flying to the grouse moors dressed in tweeds, a gillie at his side. Flying to the salmon rivers. Yes he was the king, he knew how to read the water, to find the swim, the places where the fish took their rest in the running.

Salmon were hard to catch, wily and old. And as the years passed there were fewer and fewer fish in the great river. The talk in the evening in the lodge was of netting, that the fishing boats were waiting off-shore with sonar and invisible nets taking all the hovering shoals. But the gillies when they spoke said that it was lice and amoebic gill disease that had spread into the wild populations from the salmon farms now burgeoning in the estuaries. The salmon farms that the hunters drinking whisky in the lodges had funded.

The voices from the edges were rising louder. Scientists were now talking of global warming, species extinction, soil depletion, sea level rise but still the project of progress continued, the priests and the politicians remained silent.

In his large house the man turned the radio on. But the noise now was almost overwhelming and he sensed that what he was facing was genuinely perilous. He felt it, there in his core hardwired for survival, to hear the steps of the wolves behind him, to smell the incoming storm. He knew it. The air was changing, the seasons were changing. But it was the young who felt this most keenly, the inheritance of a burnt earth, of the decaying soil and it was making them ill, taking many of them to the edge of their endurance. The man turned the radio off, like all good hunters he knew how to protect himself, when to be silent, when to wait, when to cast, when to hide. Here in his big house he now had an overwhelming sense of needing to hide, to build shelter, to stock food.

That progress was coming to an end. He could smell the incoming storm.

While the priests were still silent the politicians were beginning to hear the voices from the edge to feel the rising tides. There were great plans to reduce the amount of carbon going into the air, great plans to build wind farms, to stem the flow of plastics which were now leaching into the food systems of every life form, to build electric cars, but the project of progress was still to continue.

The man was wise enough now to know that in a crisis he needed a clear head. He put his tackle box into the back of his four by four and set off for the lake. It was where he went when he needed to consider. And the man walked down the bank that the boy would run down. He put the rod together just as the boy had done, attached the reel and added a float and weights to the line. The man stood before the water, he did not see the rising fins. He saw sphurana* glittering the surface, how the rushes bowed and he heard the still small voice of the breeze. He was a hunter and sensed where the fish lay in the colours of the reed world under the surface, sweet in their silence, their dancing and dying. And he sensed it, he knew it, that now was the time to break the reel, to burn the rod, to never again pull fish from the water just for the thrilling line. That this one act was in itself of greater significance than all the wind farms, than all the projects and plans. That the days of the hunter were at an end and the time of the nurturer was now beginning.