I once had a winter that was wordless. A time of complicated grief: the kind that can’t be shared. A loss that was private, pained. Not really known to those around me. The sort that had me hold my throat where sound should come, but would not.
I decided to weather it, simply. To drive in school hours to the highest, wildest point on my part of the Sussex Downs – Firle Beacon – and sit tight. Cry, sleep, eat. Write a little. Read a lot. A book a day sometimes, all by those of strange or insistent imaginations. Nobel Laureates. Emily Dickinson. Annie Dillard, and her urging that:
“…the gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound…Go up into the gaps.”
I did as she said, and sat for hours each week in my wind-rocked car, bundled in jumpers and blankets. Provisioned for endurance: flask and fingerless gloves, a monkish supply of oatcakes and apples. An instinct that I might, in my improvised hermitage, mend my concentration and courage both.
The first bird surprised me while I was resting my eyes – a jackdaw level with my driver’s seat window. Just inches from me, and held fast in the strong wind of that day as I have never seen a bird before or since. Engraved in memory: black leather legs, rictal bristles on the beak, an aluminium eye, and every wing-feather filigreed by the Beacon’s white light so I could feel the hooks and barbules holding each one together, a chain mail.
As a child in farming country, I’d learnt long ago the parts of animals but only as things dead or diagrammed. A turkey being plucked and drawn. A rook strung on a barbed-wire fence as warning to others. Entries in my grandmother’s Country Companion where birds were classified first as pests or benefactors. Surrounded always by poultry, flocks of sheep and herds of cows, I’d been incurious to them as living creatures in relation to one another. Had always preferred the word to the world.
Now I couldn’t stop looking. I recorded the rooks of Firle for hours, months. At first light and last. In sun and storm. Following them on days when my chronic pain lifted just enough for me to track them from Beacon to Bottom; most days using the car as hide.
Photographs by the thousand of the shapes they made: these masters of communal living who seem to exist in easy fellowship with other species, following in the hooves of cattle, sharing the gleanings with smaller birds. Patterns emerged, and although I didn’t understand them I postponed – for the first time – going to books for easy answers.
And all the while, my own shape was shifting. I was able, while watching them, to slip free from my self that was stuck in its mourning. To follow them into the gaps.
When I first put the images online, people asked if I was working after the example of the late Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase, who began to study ravens obsessively after loss. I didn’t know of him until then, but discovering his work made me more not less committed to what I was doing – and to one day sharing my birds in a way that the very expensive and limited editions of his work can’t be.
Last winter. A family crisis found me away from my husband and young children between Christmas and New Year. I was holed up alone in the Cardiff Marriott, halfway home but feeling very far from love and nature. As I unpacked, a little black-papered notebook fell from my bag. Dark and surprising as that jackdaw the year before.
I also had with me, I realised, a new gift to self: pocket printer – the sort that uses heat and till roll to make grainy images stripped of everything but their essential form.
This is how I would send my Birds of Firle into the world, I decided. Using these simplest of materials. The message, the intent, the invitation being the thing.
I thought of Dickinson, whose poems I read over and again on the Beacon. How they were her ‘letter to the world’.
What would mine be?
This. Twenty-one rooks printed and stuck into that fifty-pence notebook. To be offered in turn to anyone, anywhere, who would write back with their thoughts – after Emily Dickinson, after Max Porter – on grief or hope as the thing with feathers.
I began the letter to go with it, using hotel stationery to articulate that wordless winter among the birds:
“I did not find creativity or nature or even friendship to be a cure-all for sorrow. These images for a long time felt only to be a concentrate of failure, loneliness, confusion. But the growing purpose of my visits there, as I learned about the birds and waited for them, began to make new work happen – and the unexpected connections that come whenever one puts new things into the world. The loss remained a stubborn hollow space (is so still). But life expanded around it. Colour returned. And hope. In sending this book to you, I anticipate gladly the words, art and conversations that might follow from it.”
Such a small, strange thing to offer online on the New Year’s Day of a new decade. Would any one notice? Care?
In its first year in the wild – it feels like that, this little book: a living thing that will one day not return – Birds of Firle has gone up to Scotland and back, several times. To Exmoor, then the South Devon coast. To Germany, Canada, the Netherlands. It has been missing in the post for heart-rending weeks, only to arrive back with strange markings on its envelope just as I’m reconciled to my experiment ending. I even dared to send it to America at the height of postal disruptions before the election: a tiny, defiant wish to use the mail for an exchange of hope and trust.
When it returns, handwritten notes come too. Feathers and other small, natural artefacts. Essays. A stone-carver wrote about her walks in a ‘book-field’, sculpting for me a broken feather to commemorate one found there. Daughters have written of their gone fathers, as has a son. A mother whose university-aged boy died suddenly used the book to think of him, and undertake a day of dedicated mourning: to go through rain to a beach they shared and walk her grief. ‘Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals. Today I felt I was performing one…A quiet focus on small, natural things.’
The pandemic – its many limits and losses – soon gave the project and my invitation a new urgency. Two new lovers wrote about separation in the time of Coronavirus, and the wooden wing each one holds in their hand at night, before sleep. A poem for ‘the singing of souls passing’ marked how many people were now being deprived of their usual funeral rites.
The subject is serious, but the effect on those who write to me – and those of us who read their offerings – is one of lightness. Hope. That expansive, air-born thing.
As founder of The Selkie Press, Tanya Shadrick is editor of Wild Woman Swimming – a journal of west country waters by the late Lynne Roper, longlisted for the 2019 Wainwright Prize. Tanya’s practice of writing outside to inspire creativity and connection has earned her Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts, and her online Wild Patience Diaries are likewise designed to encourage others in the slow and steady growing of a creative life. Her memoir The Cure for Sleep will be published in February 2022 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
You can learn more about the Birds of Firle at The Selkie Press.
All images in this piece are copyright Tanya Shadrick.