biology, geography


The walk home along the canal brought someone I haven’t seen for year or more, the seal. I rummaged around in my bag for the camera as I had to capture him (why  exactly did I have to capture him on camera?) and by the time I had it switched on I had lost him, just a few grainy out of focus shots and a video of the waves.

Walking home I was reminded of  a Wendell Berry poem I’d read last night.
It has been a tough week with things that have kept me a awake at night. News of family friend in hospital far from home and  family, fear and panic, far from peace.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry

praying with eyes open and three men in a boat

Continuing my journey along the  River Thames with “Three men in a Boat” I came to this passage

The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.

A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them – the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind – should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.
Jerome K. Jerome

This called to mind a chapter in a Eugene Peterson book that talks about Annie Dillard, John Calvin and the wonder of creation

There are two great mystical traditions in the life of prayer, sometimes labeled kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic prayer uses icons, symbols, ritual, incense; the creation is the way to the Creator. Apophatic prayer attempts emptiness; the creature distracts from the Creator, and so the mind is systematically emptied of idea, image, sensation until there is only the simplicity of being. Kataphatic prayer is ‘praying with your eyes open’; apophatic prayer is ‘praying with your eyes shut. At our balanced best, the two traditions intermingle, mix, and cross-fertilize. But we are not always at our best. The Western church is heavily skewed on the side of the apophatic. The rubric for prayer when I was a child was ‘Fold your hands, bow your head, shut your eyes, and we’ll pray.’ My early training carries over into my adult practice. Most of my praying still is with my eyes shut. I need balancing.
Eugene Peterson, The Gift

That certainly rings true with my experience of Protestant Christianity, the closing of eyes and bowing of the head each time we pray in church to block out the distractions of the world.

When we do that we are less distracted by worldly things and can concentrate on the spiritual. Yet it all seems very gnostic or something and in a way is saying that the things that we see with our eyes are corrupted and on a lesser plane than the things we think or have in our heart.

There is something wrong there.

On the other hand, praying with your eyes open might be easy in the wilds of Donegal or looking down the valleys of Switzerland in spring but how do you pray in Lambeg or Lisburn on a wet, windy dark January night when you’re feeling low and frustrated with life? For me that has been a puzzle that I haven’t cracked in my time here. How to pray with eyes open beside the Lagan Tow path when the hawthorns are closing in on you and you have only a moorhen for company.


a bend in the river?

I walked home from Belfast through Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon park and along the Lagan coming to rest just before the M1 bridge. I read the 88th Psalm and tried to take stock of my life, or have a moment of calm.
The lamenting song writing project has hit the buffers a bit for different reasons. These range from doubts of the value of doing them to feeling lonely while writing  to hating my voice and the sound quality to being forced to deal with that strangest of feelings, joyfulness.
Because all among all the sadness, (and there is a lot of sadness out there from car bombs being left under cars to unexpected deaths to great ‘natural’ disasters) there are things that are just joyful. Take two of our best friends having a little baby girl, a little two day old girl clinging to her mummy. Or unexpected engagements from other friends and family members. It’s very hard not to be joyful….and yet there is so much sadness that clings around and haunts the place.

This is the longest build up to Easter I can remember both metaphorically and literally. I still need to lament and be in the desert but I also want to go home, to leave the exile of sitting feeding pigs in a shit hole. For a moment  the walk home along the Lagan didn’t feel so clautrophobic and the view widened out to something bigger.


water rail

Well today was a relatively exciting day in terms of canal walks. Coming home from Lisburn, just in front of the old Barbour threads factory at Hilden a bird took flight from the side of the canal and headed low towards me along the canal and  flew back somewhere into the tangle of grass at the side.

It was like no bird I had spotted before. A bit like a snipe, but bigger and with a less impressive beak or frantic wing beat. It was like a woodcock but with a different style of flying, more like a wader or blackbird. The most recognisable feature, or the thing I’m sure I saw a mousey grey on its under carriage.

I traced my foot steps back up the canal and started peering down into the tangle of grass, but saw nothing.

I’m pretty sure it was a water rail These are the moments that you will never capture on a camera because you aren’t really expecting them and so you have to commit them to memory (or blog) and say to yourself ‘I saw a water rail once near the old factory in Hilden’ . Not that water rails are uncommon but the word is ‘secretive’.



the wine in the willows (animal ASBO song)

You may remember a few months ago that I was destroying a book in Wetherspoons and arousing the curiousity of a lady who thought I was mad. She was wondering what I would do with the book and she looked sceptical when I told her I was going to sell it on ebay.
Well that lady was right to be sceptical. I never did sell it on ebay, I decided to use it to mess around and record a few songs instead.


I wish I had a River I could Skate away on. And I do.

Walking home along the towpath from Lisburn to Hilden and the muddy brown Lagan was white and bright. It was like walking through a different landscape. Near the Barbour factory I stood under an alder tree while a small flock of goldfinch (redpolls as well?) shook snow dust from the branch on top  of my hat. It was magical, but just an illusion because those little birds are fighting for dear life in these temperatures.
Would you like to spend day and night out in it?

The same goes for the dunnocks pecking at the ice on the path while tufted duck and coot, moorhen and little grebe look for one spot on the river that has free flowing (yet freezing) water .

The willow trees are bowed over with the strain of ice and snow clinging and block parts of the tow path.


canal ways No 1 – kingfisher

Walking home from Lisburn along the canal I heard a bird call I did not recognise coming from behind me, a ribbony sort of chirrup. I looked to my left in time to see a kingfisher flying with his brakes on up the canal, like a F-14 coming in to land on an aircraft carrier.

There something magical about seeing the kingfisher, most of the birds on the canal are drab, dare I say it boring?

The moorhen, dabchick and dunnock are the plain janes of the towpath, the odd time a blue tit or long tailed tit will add a bit of life to the party but its the sight of the kingfisher that sets my pulse rushing.

As winter sets in I wonder how they will get on this year. Last year must have hit them hard with the freezing conditions, especially when the main way you feed is to dive into water to catch a fish. Imagine trying to stay warm after diving into an icy canal?

The kingfisher also reminds me of  the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
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;’


M1 Tunnel

Walking home from Edenderry to Lisburn today along the towpath I reached the tunnel under the M1 and pulled my mob phone out to take a few pictures of the light at the end of the tunnel,then I switched over to video camera and recorded me emerging from the tunnel.
I’ve just uploaded it unto my laptop and if you use your imagination you can almost see a ghostly face appear at ~8sec to the left of the light…or can you?