A speck in the ocean.

As a kid, holidays meant a series of day trips that started and ended at our brown front door, the one with the loose brass handle and the glass that rattled in the wind.  Any overnight trips meant camping with the Scouts, returning home smelling of wood smoke and needing a bath.

Not that long ago flying was still a novelty for me.  It signified something different, an adventure. It meant that I was no longer tied to the routines of childhood holidays. 

That was until I started to fly for work.  Two, or sometimes three, trips a year, interstate mainly, but with the occasional long haul thrown in, soon robs flying of its novelty and thrill.  Work travel is more work that travel, and with a young family, I was more likely to feel I was in a lonely place than in a Lonely Planet.  This may sound like whingeing, but an early flight to Sydney followed by meetings and a night in a noisy hotel is travel robbed of the slightest possibility of adventure.  I fly enough, without ever having the chance to fly at the pointy end, to know what to expect.  Spending a few hours in the cupboard under our stairs would probably be just as comfortable and would certainly have better wine.

But sometimes, a destination, and the months of anticipation that go with it, can cut through this familiarity and promise something new.

The plane is tiny, with real propellers and (disconcertingly) chipped paint on the engine cowlings.  The flight will be one on a human scale, not the industrial monstrosities of modern, bulk carrier flights.  Jets seem to fly with a method akin to magic: just a chest sinking burst of acceleration and a few mechanical clunks and vibrations, and that’s it.  But prop planes feel different.  You can see the source of effort and energy that will pull you into the air.  You can see the blades spin up to full speed, passing from the merely blurred to the invisible.  And from the vantage of a window seat you can see small trails of cloud being formed at the base of the propeller disc as the fabric of the air is torn apart by the passage of the blades.  This is flight by brute force, visible and clear.  This is flying to rebirth adventure.

We head northwest, away from Sydney and out into the Pacific. Soon we are in a water world, on the edge of the world’s largest ocean.  As ever, I wonder at the possibility of whales and search for details to comprehend the surface of the sea.  But there is just water, and wind driven waves.  Flight is always a matter of trust – in physics, in the skill of the crew and in the function of the technology packed into the airframe.  On this trip, in a tiny plane, in search of just a speck of land in a huge ocean, I feel the necessity of trust more than normal. 

I seem to be the only passenger travelling by myself.  There are couples and extended families, there are very few kids and I am the only single.  This does not aid conversation, but does bring a great sense of clarity.

“Kate, have you done the flight thingy”
“Which thing?”
“The plane phone flight safety thing”
“You mean wifi?”
“No that other thing”
“No.  The safety setting thing”
“Oh, that one – yes I’ve done that.  Have you?
“I’m not sure if I need to”
“Maybe you should”
“Can you do it for me?”

I embrace the consolation of solitude and relax into the noisy silence of the engine’s drone.

Lord Howe Island covers just less than 15 km2, smaller than most hobby farms. At its widest it reaches 2km, and is less than 11km from north to south. It sits about 600km out into the Pacific.  It is, by any definition, small and remote. The idea that this plane will find and land on this speck of rock is akin to a fly discovering a leaf in a swimming pool.  

Then, out past the wingtip, land appears; a small sweep of green rising up into a pair of blocky mountains at its southern end.  A few smaller hills stud the middle ground, only for the land to rise again at the north. The outline is wholly asymmetrical.  A curved line of surf off to the east marks the outer edge of a reef that forms a protected lagoon.  Beyond the western shores there is nothing but ocean and the passage of waves. 

The tone of the engine changes as we start to descend towards the island.  It feels like we are landing on water rather than solid ground, and beneath the wing tips there is nothing but sea.  As the place passes over the coral reef the water changes from a wind peaked green to a shocking clarity.  Even through the windows of the plane I can begin to see huge heads of coral that almost reach the surface water.  I can see deep holes, darker in colour, but still clear.  I can see sweeps of colours that grow clearer as the plane sinks lower.  But I can still see nowhere to land.

Beyond the right wingtip the two southern mountains loom high above us, but we are still over water. The plane can be no more than tens of meters above the ocean when the runway appears, so close that it’s shocking.  So close it’s a relief.  The engine tone changes again – increasing to a higher whine that borders on desperation – as soon as the wheels touch the ground.  Flying may be hard, but stopping seems harder.

The plane slows to a halt outside what appears to be a three-bedroom house, with a small garden, white picket fence and a loyalty proving flag pole.  It is in fact the airport building.  There is a delay (it really is an airport!) before the plane’s door opens and I strike up a conversation with the cabin steward.

“Nice place to have to come to on a daily basis.  Do you ever get to stay?” I say.
“I’ve never been bothered” he replies, “not much to do, not enough shopping for me. Too quiet at night as well.”  It’s clear that while he may work for an airline by day, he does not moonlight for the tourist board in his spare time.  His response seems akin to complaining about the wildlife in Africa being ‘too black and white’, ‘too fierce’ and ‘too tall’.  I occupy myself with a previously unknown, but now vital, repacking task with my hand luggage.  When the door finally opens the steward seems to take a step backward, away from the possibility of nature, and back to the security of the mini-bar. 

Just inside the picket fence a group of staff from the island’s hotels and guesthouses wait to collect their new guests.  I am quickly assigned to the right person and pointed in the direction of the baggage claim area.  This is no fancy carousel, but just the back of a flat bed trailer, heaped with brightly coloured bags.  I find a patch of familiar purple and extract my bag.  Some of the older passengers find this rather too hard, and for a while I become a volunteer baggage handler.  I’m glad that I don’t do this for a living.  Once I have fulfilled my community service obligation, I head for the van labelled “Somerset”, not out of any sense of home county nostalgia, but because that’s what my accommodation is called.  

Out on the grassy fringes of the runway I can see Golden Plover and Buff-Banded Rail. Overhead I can see dark capped terns, with wings that flash white in the sunlight – Sooty Terns. The air smells of rich salt and damp growth.  I am, to say the least, excited.  I have been planning and talking about this trip for months, much to the frustration of my long suffering family!

Over the part of the island known as the “Central Business District”, pure white terns are flying and landing in the branches of Norfolk Pines.  These are White Terns, one of the birds I have come all this way to see – and there they are outside the window of the van, even before I have been shown to my room or unpacked a bag. The CBD contains just a Post Office, a restaurant, two small shops and a phone to make free local calls. The sea in the lagoon is as clear from the shore as it was from the air, sparkle bright and inviting after a few hours of cramped sitting.  The beach is narrow but picture book golden, flanked at one end by darker rocks and the other by a long sweep of forest that seems to come down to meet the sea.  The few boats that sit at anchor in the lagoon weathervane into symmetry under the influence of a cool breeze.  There are no gulls.  Divers, fresh from the ocean, wade ashore from a silver hulled boat.  Everywhere I look there is novelty and beauty. 

I settle into my room at Somerset, unpacking cameras and shirts, wide brimmed hats and tripod.  The room possesses a greater sense of utility than beauty, but I intend to do little more than sleep here, so this is fine.  I fill two water bottles and put them in the fridge, along with two large bars of dark chocolate, brought from the mainland to guard against shortage and the inflation of island prices.  Within 20 minutes I am walking away from Somerset (this seems to be a recurring theme in my life) towards Ned’s Beach. 

Within minutes an energetic Emerald Ground Dove and a stationary Buff-banded Rail have delayed me.  The dove proves hard to frame, but the rail sits still by the side of the road.  Despite an island-wide speed limit of 25 km per hour I think a car has hit the rail.  Even with its eyes closed the small bird manages to look stunned.  A few head-shakes help the bird regain its usual poise and after a few pecks and feather adjustments it rushes across the road to the sanctuary of a hedge.  I cannot help but note that it does not look both ways.

The road to Ned’s Beach is marked by a clear sign and festooned with large spiders – Golden Orb Webs, with strands of web as thick as guitar strings and bodies the size and colour of pale grapes.   The sign says “Give Way”, which seems more than reasonable in the circumstances.

The road to the beach passes through bare soil woodland, riddled with burrows, speckled with birdlime. Another road sign warns of “Mutton Birds on Road” – and there are a few flattened carcasses to show that not everyone pays attention.  Beyond the trees, grassy areas open on both sides of the road.  The right opens to picnic tables and barbeques, the left through sand dunes to the sea.  The sweep of the beach consists of classically golden yellow sand, with only a handful of people in sight, and they are all at the far end of the beach.  A small group – adults and children – stand in the surf at the same end, squealing with delight.  I suspect I know why.   There is too much to see, but what distracts me most is the air full of birds at the other, quieter, end of the beach.

I focus on the birds in the air and almost stand on one on the ground.  I stand still and look around.  The dunes are full of Sooty Terns, black and white with a bandit eye mask.  There are small chicks hiding in the coarse grasses that pop from the sand, and overhead there are adult birds screaming in protest.  Sitting on the grass seems to dull the anxiety of the adults in the air above me. Soon some sense of calm descends as the birds realise I am just another harmless visitor.  Life around me returns to normal, as the birds ignore me and I stare at them.

It can give you an interesting perspective on life, being ignored by all the hectic activity around you.  The birds have better things to do than be concerned by a strange figure who as moved from sitting on the ground to lying down.   The ever hungry chicks walk from cover and hunt the sky for their parents, who return, now and then, with small silver fish or a crop full of protein rich sludge.  The fish look the more appetising option, although the chicks don’t seem to care.

It’s hard to believe that less than an hour ago I was on a plane, breathing recycled air, impatient with anticipation.  An hour ago I had only seen Sooty Terns as a rather distant white shape, and now they surround me in their hundreds, maybe thousands.  Each wing flick, each beak snap is now revealed in pin sharp clarity.  It seems futile to think that such life can be rendered comprehensible or captured in a single frame.  It seems distracting to think of shutter speeds and apertures.  The abundance seems overwhelming; simultaneously remarkable and unbelievable.  To have come so far to see so much, in a place so small.

And I know this is just the start of it.  At the other end of the beach another world awaits under the water. Brightly coloured fish swim through the surf and shimmer in the sunlit waves.  Coral heads poke through the surface, and distant grey waders flicker from rock to rock. 

I have just over a week to here.  It is best I make the most of it.

July (1) - Morning

It was almost a year to the day since I had last stood under a Norfolk sky.  As I stepped out of the farmhouse it was not yet mid-summer, though the day was forecast to be hot.  The night before I had been lulled into sleep by the sound of Swallows twittering in the long dusk.  This morning, despite the early hour, they were up before me.  They sat on power lines and fence posts, and darted in and out of the buildings that surrounded the farmhouse.  In a straw topped yard black and white cows – White Park Cattle  – rustled and pushed their slick wet noses through the fence.

In the trees down across the lawn, Wood Pigeons looped through their repeating call, over and over, again and again.  Beyond the trees a faint vapour of mist rose from the river.  A Black Bird sang from the chimney pot, and off to the side a Tawny Owl watched from the top of a five bar gate before it flew from sight.  In the distance I could hear the caw of Rooks and the chack of Jackdaws.  It seemed that all the extras from central casting had arrived this morning.  This was nostalgia and memory at a level that was almost painful.  This is what I dream of when my night time subconscious takes me somewhere greener than my everyday.  Beyond all other things, this I what I had once assumed most mornings would be like, but life did not take me down that path.  Some days this feels like exile, most days it feels like adventure.  Today it feels like homecoming.

The early morning has a special kind of charm, especially when you have chosen to see it, and nothing but your own will has lifted you from under the sheets.  No work time obligation, no financial need, just your own private wants.  In my case I was going to fish for tench.

I was in no hurry to shut the car door on this picture perfect morning, and as I drove away I resented the exclusion that turns the world into more TV.  The crackle of gravel under the tyres sounded loud and out of place.  None the less, the rabbits browsing on the verges ignored my vehicle and me.  Maybe they were aware that they had survived the challenges of the night, and free from the fear of natural predators refused to flee from a metal one.  Maybe.

This time of day is wonderfully special.  The everyday business of the daylight has yet to drive away the hidden world of the night.  Predators return to nests or burrows, and their prey emerges from the same.  What ever the day will bring is still unmade and all that awaits is possibility.  How many people have this time of chance taken from them by some belief in fate or destiny?  How many people have the ‘fierce possibility of now’ stripped from their day before it has even begun?  On a day full of such unknown possibility, how can I not smile?

The roads and the sky are empty.  A few strands of clouds, stolen from above, lie in the hedge bottoms and gather in otherwise hidden folds in the fields.  Even at this hour the sky is beginning to take on the harsh blue of a hot day.  A few young pheasants, empty-headed targets that they are, run along the road in front of me, refusing to fly.  Eventually they leave the road under the bars of a gate.  I suspect the escape may only be temporary. 

I arrive at the lake and begin the familiar process of setting up a fishing rod.  Threading the line through each ring, and pulling down on the line to check I have not missed any.  I attach a classic red-topped float and tie on a hook that looks tiny after days spent on the sea and in the surf.  The processes of checking the depth and setting the float come back immediately despite sitting unused for years.  The bait is close to hand and the rod set with the far end on a rest and the butt on my knee.  To my left, willows give some shade and behind me taller trees, alders, hide me from the skyline.  It’s as if I have never stopped fishing like this, although the truth of the matter is that it’s 30 years since I fished as much as I could.

Embrough, Priddy, Longleat, Woodland Park, sometimes further afield.  Fishing for tench, carp, roach and bream.  More often than not, catching perch.  Or maybe fishing the Avon if I could get a lift with a friend.  My father did not like river fishing, too much movement, too far to walk.  So I fished for barble or chub without him.

I would struggle to the water’s edge, carrying dozens of things I never used, but would take great care to make sure the half a dozen things I really needed were close at hand.  Bait for the hook and coffee for me.  The bait squirming in round, green boxes, with white lids; the coffee in two flasks, blue and yellow, both with a black cup lid.  They may not have been Thermoses, but all flasks are called that brand.  The bait and flasks probably both came from the small hardware shop in Westfield.  My lunch would have been a mix of pies and sausage rolls, bought each week on a standing order from a shop in Midsomer Norton.  People smile at that name, and associate it with murder – but there are days when I would kill for one of those beef pies.     

The float twitches and slides away, too fast and positive for the hoped for tench, and a few seconds later a smallish roach is being slipped back into the water.  It may not be kind, but the least I can do is make it rapid.  I catch a few more roach before my mind is drawn away by a sharp sound in the air.

A ground of terns, cloud white in the blue sky, are dashing over the water, beaks pointed down in search mode, looking for fish.  When they spot a target they seem to keep flying a few meters, with the beak tracking backwards so that it ends up tucked under the bird’s body.  At this point the tern pulls into a steep climb and flies back in a vertical circle to dive down into the water.  It all happens in a few seconds and is wonderful to watch.  Most times the tern emerges with a tiny sliver of silver, destined to be fed to an egg fat female or a protein hungry chick.  This is a perfect example of the distractibility that meant I never had any chance of being in the 10% that catches 90% of the fish.   

To my right a mouse, or maybe a vole to judge by the flat face that emerges from the grass, eyes up a stray grain of corn.  This is a moment when all thought of fish leaves me and I hold to as much stillness as I can.  The mouse moves forward in two short bursts, seeming to travel from one place to another without ever being in the space in between.  Maybe it is just my eye that causes it to stop, the observer effect of quantum science made solid by a Norfolk lake.  With the yellow grain held fast between its teeth, it turns tail and vanishes.  

Out towards the middle of the lake a Great Crested Grebe fishing for roach too.  Its partner carries striped young on its back and takes the little silver fish offered to it with unhurried ease.

A Moorhen appears on my left and panics at my presence.  No amount of stillness is enough for some species.

The sites and sounds of this picture perfect and totally ordinary English morning are so familiar that I could believe I have never stopped living in them; but it’s almost half a lifetime since they were routine for me.  The experience is pure nostalgia. The birdcalls and the smell of leaves and grass drying from their dewy dampness in the morning.  The routine of casting and scattering bait on the water.  The convenience of gear placed close at hand.

But above all else it’s the stillness that I feel and remember.  A stillness that is internal more than external.  A stillness that for a long, long time I had lost, and could not re-find.  A stillness I thought I would never get back.  There was a time when all that went on inside my head was loud and shouted, and all that emerged was the same.  It was a noise so loud I could not hear people telling me to stop shouting, a noise so loud that I did not know I was shouting in the first place.  It was an internal din that drowned out everything around me so that all I had was noise and to make myself heard anywhere I had to shout louder still.  It was like screaming into a hurricane.  I was carrying a whole age of anger with me all the time.  And it robbed me of any chance of stillness or silence. 

It would have been easier, but far more damaging, if I had not been able to remember what stillness felt like.  But I could remember it and I could not get it back.  I knew that there had been times of stillness in the past, and I knew that there had been things that I had done that had brought me stillness – and fishing was one of them.  But in the noisiest times the inevitable hitches of fishing did not bring resigned sighs and a slow solution, rather they brought more noise – and an anger directed at a world that was not responsible for them.   I was ill in a way that was frightening and familiar. As a child I had seen what electricity and drugs could do to somebody in the name of a cure.  And that vision was only slightly less frightening than the vision of a future in which the noise consumed me and I was nothing but anger and volume.  I needed to stand still and let the things that filled me with terrifying noise pass by, so that they could move into a future that did not include me.  I needed space and silence.  I needed the kind of silence that can come on a morning filled with bird song and the noise of water, reel and line.

Sometimes it feels like the echoes of that noise are still there, distant but not gone.  The memory of that noise is like the light from a far-flung star – a sensation that exists in the present, but carries information from the past.  And while the information is frightening I need to understand it, so that I can react to its presence.  And those reactions include rituals of silence and stillness that, for me, include the crafting of words into sentences, the making of pictures and, now and then, a spot of fishing.

It’s not that I have to travel half way around the world for a ‘spot of fishing’, but on this day so many memories and old routines fall into place that it’s hard to believe that I ever stopped doing them.  And things that are absent make for a sense of change and growth.  My blue float box, made with little skill and only a little more enthusiasm in woodwork at school, would have been useful today as it contained a shop full of floats, held in place by foam and sorted by size.  I had a folding chair with one arm removed, which would have been kinder on my knees than the ground-hugging version I borrowed.  I had boxes, bags and buckets, all with a purpose, all mostly unused.  I loved the organisation and the anticipation, I loved the belief that the bits and pieces really would help and that a fish of a life time was just a cast away.  But I have come to believe that a day spent fishing where only the fish that you catch matter, is day when an opportunity has been missed.  It’s a day where a one-eyed focus on rod and reel will have been robbed of the major part of possibility.

In the past, the early morning of the weekend would normally see me in my father’s car, being driven with more enthusiasm than skill (sorry Bert, but it’s true!) to some watery venue.  That we generally arrived intact from these journeys is remarkable really, for the vehicles were of the vintage that drove the British car industry into the ground.  My father probably had no option, but buying more than one Austin Maxi is evidence that you do not learn from your past mistakes.  As we drove (never using 5th gear, as once it was selected it was impossible to get out of it!) we would wonder what fraction of the cars on the road were there for the same purpose as us.  And as another small roach comes to hand I find myself thinking the same thing.  How many people are out fishing, right now in the early morning?

And while I am sure that their reasons for fishing, or the things that they take away, are different to mine, there is a shared experience, a kind of continuity and community, which creates more than it takes away.  But beyond this is a richness of language and experience that would be diminished if this community ceased to be.  By meres and lakes, ponds and waters, streams, rivers, canals, cuts, drains, rivers and brooks people find and maintain a common lexicon that explains and expands our understanding of the world.  I doubt that anybody would be fishing for barble in a mere or rudd in a brook.  The language of the water extends to its ecology and nature; in some ways the world and the words are one.  If we lose the words we lose that understanding of that part of the world – if water is reduced to a dichotomy of just tap or bottled, or sparkling or still, everything is diminished and we are all made smaller for that lose.

The world needs more understanding based on the experience of the real.  We need more words built from the feeling of wind on your face, or the sharp rattle of rain.  We need more days built around the smell of a changing wind, or the knowledge of whether a winter’s sky will bring rain or snow.  We need more language constructed through reality of existence and not words constrained by the edicts of imaginary friends.  Fishing will not save the world, but it may help people to see the value of evidence and reaction, observation and change. 

Out in the deeper water large slab-sided fish roll in the weeds.  The bream are spawning, responding to day-length and temperature, to have thoughts of spring on an early summer morning.  Waves of movement spread through the weeds as one fish after another swirls.  The motion is like watching falling cards or stacked dominoes.  Out past the fish and weed, a dark shape, low to the surface, cuts a slick vee through the water.  Every so often the movement stops and the dark shape disappears under the water, only to reappear a few meters further on.  The bream ignore it but I don’t.  This is more distraction, more reason to look away from the red topped float.  The vee approaches an island and the dark shape pulls itself form the water.  I catch a glimpse of a body and long tail, slick with water.  Even the distance to the island cannot disguise the call of panic from a Moorhen.    The animal is an otter.  As a kid these predators were a ghost in the landscape, lost and presumed gone. 

But all kinds of recovery are possible, internal and external.  And this morning I see both.

I collect my bag and rod and move to a different swim more thickly set with weeds.  A few patches of bubbles, needle fine and rapid, suggest that I may have found some tench.  I quickly catch a bream, empty sided and washed out.  I hold it upright in the water for a while before it kicks away, sluggish and tired.  The float twitches and dances in classic fashion; such signs require patience and a degree of restraint – I can do the first, but the second comes much harder.  Eventually – and probably quicker than I would describe – the float slides under and I feel the slow, but powerful, pull of a tench.  It’s not big enough to grace the cover any magazine, and it’s not bigger than some I have caught in the past.  Bottle green flanks and thick muscular fins.  A red eye and slime, which is warm and slick to the touch.  Within a few minutes it is back in the water.

I recast and wonder what will happen next.