Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Fisheye Photography

Today I went swimming with my new toy - an action camera that takes underwater photographs. Actual underwater photography in the Thames would be a bit pointless given how cloudy the water is, but I took a few shimmery shots of my legs just to experiment. Eat your heart out, Esther Williams.

There was a light breeze and cotton wool clouds skudding across a blue sky. A grebe was diving nearby. The Heathrow flight path was over Twickenham today, and the aeroplanes glided in above the roof tops with a distant growl.

Then I saw it - that iridescent streak of blue and a gleam of gold as a kingfisher flashed past and alighted on a garden wall beside the river bank. A kingfisher used to be a daily visitor to the bank opposite my houseboat until last summer, but I haven't seen one since. Kingfishers have a life expectancy of five to seven years, so given that I'd been living here for six years, I presumed that it had died. Occasionally in the spring there would be a pair, so perhaps the breeding parents imprinted in the consciousness of their chicks this particular secluded spot along the river.

I drifted back to the boat with the outgoing tide, thrilled beyond words that the kingfisher was back. How is it possible for so much joy to be kindled by one tiny bird? A mother duck came calling with her newly hatched ducklings -  yellow and brown fluff balls cheeping and paddling around her.

As I sat at my desk to answer emails and wade through the day's tasks, I heard the unmistakable sound outside the window - the splash of a kingfisher diving into the river. I looked up in time to see that glorious blue streak as it flew up to the tree on the river bank.

'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' is one of my favourite poems. Here it is:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Swimming with Swans

This morning I checked the news online before going for a swim in the river. I was expecting dismal headlines about intercontinental ballistic missiles, mad presidents and Brexit. This was the article I read instead. Seal populations are flourishing in the Thames estuary, and they can sometimes be seen as far inland as Teddington Lock.

A seal on Islay - coming soon to Teddington Lock?
The tide was high and just about to turn - the perfect time to swim. I let myself down the ladder into the river, distracted from the shock of the cold water on my body by a swan hissing at me as I invaded her space. I swam down the creek where my boat is moored, and into the wide and welcoming river towards Teddington Lock. Two barges chugged past, and I let myself bob on the waves they created. I attracted the usual curious glances and waved, smiling to reassure them that I was waving, not drowning. They made their way slowly up the river, and then I was alone with nothing but the birds and the occasional leaping fish for company. I imagined the thrill of discovering a seal as one of my swimming companions.

The sky was high and blue and dappled with clouds. The sun warmed my face, and the water spread around me in ripples of silver and green. A heron watched me from the prow of one of the small boats moored along the river until I came too close for comfort, then it flew a little further along the river. It repeated this routine several times, keeping a safe distance between us. A cormorant lifted from the river, its snake-like form morphing into a sleek streak of wings and neck.

I began to feel the resistance of the tide as it turned. I had to swim harder to keep moving, but I wasn't ready to turn back.  The sky clouded over and the river turned dark and sinister. I felt the tide tugging against me and became conscious of the power and volume of water and my solitude and smallness. I was adrift in some timeless force of nature, and for a moment I felt that nameless fear that romantic poets describe as the sublime.

Small waves ruffled the water, flowing fast with the current of the tide. A sparrow hawk slid across the sky above me. I feared for the gulls drifting and playing in the air currents. Green parakeets screeched among the trees at the river's edge, creating flashes of tropical colour as they flew.

I swam until the sky cleared and the river turned silver again, then I turned and drifted back with the outgoing tide to the boat. I became lost in the rhythm of my breathing and the quiet steady movement of my limbs beneath the surface.

I let the river carry me home. I was one with everything. What a glorious way to start the day.