• Sim Elliott

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: a walk in Hollingbury woods; and resilience in covid times.

Updated: Feb 19, 2021


Fog and sunlight


When I stood on the ancient Hill Fort on Hollingbury Hill on Saturday afternoon, the sun shone on the hills and its trees, and shrubs and birds; bathing them in light, and a little warmth, on a bitterly cold winter day. From the hill, in all directions, could be seen freezing fog. Hollingbury Hill felt a warm island, standing above and beyond the sea of freezing fog that had enveloped the South Downs and the Vale of Sussex and many districts of Brighton itself.


Views from Hollingbury Hill:

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), 1818, Caspar David Friedrich, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany. Phoito © Kunsthalle Hamburg


As the news reports daily of ever increasing deaths caused by covid-19, it is natural to be afraid; in fact nothing could be more natural. Fear is an adaptive evolutionary response to threat; it helps us. It helps by prompting us to move away from threats; as sadness (not engrained depression) prompts us to change the things in our lives and our world that need changing.


But continual experience of fear can saps our morale, and demotivate action. When our daily life is saturated with consideration of death we need respite, in order to top up the resilience that enables us to tolerate fear and sadness, and top up the courage that we need to fight against the terrible inequality and injustice that has exacerbated the death toll from covid amongst the most needy. For me. respite occurs when I "inhabit" a natural space, an "island" of solace and hope, where I am engaged in nature; temporarily bathing in the ambience of an ancient wood; or concentrating of the beauty of a single bird, or noting a colour, or a shape or pattern, made by an assemblage of plants or other natural objects. We can not ignore negative emotions, and we should not, because they have important functions, but it is best not be swamped by negative emotion.


Most people have things which they do to create islands of calm and greater positive emotion. Our islands of hope and solace may be listing to a favourite track of music or looking at a loved piece of art; for me it is nature that often provides peace.


Whilst the sun felt special on Saturday afternoon, especially as the world around Hollingbury, viewed from Hollingbury Hill, revealed that there was little sun elsewhere. However, when I am in a wood, or on a hill, or by the sea, or along a river estuary, the weather means surprisingly little; most cold and wet can be endured with good outdoor clothing when you are deeply attuned to the nature that you can see and hear around you; I have experienced peace and solace in the pouring rain when I am focused on a particular bird that entrances me! Heat from the sun is not needed, though it is certainly welcome when it is present on a nature journey; although I am lit and warmed by an inner experience, a sense of temporary union with the natural world; a dissolution of ego, a blending with time and place; being a part of bigger geographical, historical and temporal reality.


When I am a wood, or on a hill, or by a river, or on the beach, animals becomes my objects of attention. I watch them intently, I photograph them, I study their behaviour; I become absorbed in their world. Time passes unfelt; in the flow of connection with animals my perception of time slows, or seem to stop temporarily. As I no longer think about clock time; I let go of temporal thoughts: what's the time, when must I go home; what must I do later; what will tomorrow bring, what does the future hold for us all - these are question about which I think nothing as I look hard at the feathers of a Blue Tit, wandering how many chicks has she raised.


I love all animals but I focus on birds simply because many indigenous mammals are nocturnal; hedgehogs, voles, mice etc., are difficult to see in the day, and not easy to see at night either. But there are birds everywhere, they are always around us; although they may be hard to see, they can be heard, but the ubiquity of bird song means that we often unconsciously filter out bird song as we attend to other things. Take a moment in your day outside and stand still and listen; you'll probably hear bird song, it is so ubiquitous we rarely pay attention to it, but when we do, it can fill our heart with joy.


A digression on birdsong


As I was walking up Hollingdean Road to Hollingbury Woods, I heard a garden bush alive with the song of many House sparrows, I couldn't see them at all as the foliage was so dense, but they were there. I frequently hear House sparrows when I pass gardens with large shrubs, like Buddleia, particular in the afternoon. Previously I hadn't noticed this; now my ears are alert to singing shrubs, I stop frequently to listen to that singing on my travels for a few minutes; it is an instant boost to positive emotion.


You can always listen to bird song at home; You Tube has many great videos of birds singing; and this may be a great solace if the lockdown restrictions are increased, and for those who already can not leave their houses because of their vulnerability.


Birds song especially that of the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, has inspired many composers, from early in the Renaissance, such as the use of cuckoo song in Janequin's 16th century Le Chant Des Oiseaux, and on through the Baroque period period of music history, e.g. Vivaldi's "Cuckoo" Concerto [Il Cucù] for violin, strings & basso continuo in A major. (The opening violin solo is based on the cuckoo's characteristic call).


In Classical period of music history, there are very well-know examples of cuckoo song, such as the cuckoo in the second movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Symphony Number 6), and also in the 19th Romantic period, e.g. Mahler's use of cuckoo song in the first movement his First Symphony,


In the modern period, composers such as Messiaen (who was also an expert ornithologist who made field recording) imitated bird song much more "realistically":


Messiaen's used a much larger range of bird song than any previous composer, for example his Catalogue d'oiseaux ("Catalogue of birds") for piano solo -1956-58, uses the songs of The Alpine chough; The Eurasian golden oriole; The Blue rock thrush; The Black-eared wheatear; The Tawny owl; The Woodlark; The Eurasian reed warbler; The Greater shirt-toed lark; The Cetti's warbler; The Common rock thrush; The Common buzzard; The Black wheatear and the Curlew. A less well known imitator of bird song was the Dane, Carl Nielson, who wrote the gorgeous choral Song of the Siskin in 1906


It is not only in classical music that bird song has been important; a little discussed-aspect of Charlie Parker's improvisation is his explicit reference to birds in his composition Ornithology; whilst Parker does not imitate any particular bird in his improvisation style, his phrases, in their mixture of melodic fluidity and angular bebop phrasing, clearly owe something to birdsong. Listen to this classic 1945 recording:


Into the woods


The "core" of the experience of positive emotion that I felt on this Saturday afternoon walk was my sustained engagement with a series of birds.


Robins


The first bird I saw in the woods yesterday was a Robin; that quintessential "British" winter bird; although of course it may have been a winter migrant. The Robins I saw were not keen on having their photos taken, all bar one were sitting high up in trees. The RSPB page on Robins notes that our resident birds are joined by immigrants from Scandinavia, continental Europe and Russia, which come to the UK to avoid the severe winters there. These visiting birds are generally paler in colour and are less 'tame' than UK birds. This is likely to be because in their home countries they are woodland birds and have less contact with humans. Considering that the Robins I saw were fearful of human contact and located themselves higher up in trees, they may well have been been European or Russian.

This Robin looked a little dishevelled. There are several reasons why a bird may look dishevelled; moulting, the weather, the toll that the breeding season has taken, undernourishment, the outcome of a squabble with another animal. Seeing dishevelment provokes empathy, because it is a natural human emotion to feel care for people and other animals that appear "weak", and dishevelment is perceived as an index of "weakness", although it may not be if it is associated with a moult.



A Goldcrest


In the woods I became transfixed with a tiny bird, I did not know what it was. It didn't settle for long. It moved down the trunk of a tree, stopping on various branches fleeringly, then near the ground it flew to an adjacent tree, and repeated the process going up that tree.


I followed it for 25 minutes, taking lots of photos; when I reviewed the photos on my camera's screen, as I was taking them, every photo seemed either to lack the tiny bird, or showed it as a tiny blurry blob of brown. It moved so quickly, by the time I had seen it in my camera viewfinder, and clicked pressed the shutter button, it had moved out of the field of the shot. Eventually I thought I should move on as I would miss other bird opportunities, and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a good shot of this tiny bird, whatever it was, on another day.


These are the photos that I took trying to capture a photo of this tiny bird.


But when I got home and reviewed my images, I found that I had captured this tiny bird, in a shot that showed it's plumage in great detail. I didn't recognize it, as I am a relative newbie to birding; so I consulted my Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition - considered the "Bird Bible" by most birders. I thought it may be a Firecrest; so I posted it on Facebook and asked if I was right. Soon a birder friend replied and said it was a Goldcrest. I was so happy, as I knew I had never knowingly seen a Goldcrest before. The Goldcrest is the UK's smallest bird; but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty.

(The knowledge that I have a community of birder friends, who enjoy discussing bird findings, is also important to my well being)


I found out more about Goldcrest from the Woodland Trust on-line entry on this bird.


The goldcrest is a tiny bird. Adults typically weigh just 5g, which is the same as a 20p coin. On average, goldcrests are slightly lighter than the similarly diminutive, and closely related, Firecrest. This makes the species the UK's smallest bird.

When I read about what Goldcrests eat the beahviour I had observed made sense; it was looking for food. Goldcrests feed on insects and invertebrates. The bird will flit among tree branches, catching small creatures such as spiders, flies and caterpillars. It often takes food from the underside of branches, hanging upside down to reach its prey.


Blackbirds


Very close to where I had seen the tiny Goldcrest I saw a male and female blackbird forage on the wood floor. I often see Blackbirds in pairs; there is something heart-warming in knowing that some birds bond as pairs (some species bond in same-sex pairings, e.g. some penguins) - companionship in action: The territories are inhabited and held by a Blackbird pair and the pairs remain in their territories all the year round. In fact, once a pair is formed and settled in a territory, it remains in that territory, or some part of it, until the death or disappearance of one or both members. Territory and pair-formation in the blackbird. -British Birds R. D Jackson (1944)


A Grey squirrel


I was then entranced by a Grey squirrel; it hoped, jumped, scurried, foraged for hidden nuts, looked attentively on the ground, and scampered along branches like an acrobat; it was so full of life. It's lively demeanour refreshed me.


Blue tits


As I walked further on I saw several Blue tits high in the trees. With one I thought I had seen a Stonechat because of it's golden colour, but when I looked carefully at the image on my laptop when I got back home I realised it was a Blue Tit whose feather colour had been transformed by the rays of the setting sun into a golden orange


This series of photos shows how engrossed I became in two Blue tits.



A digression on the sun


The last rays of the setting sun in winter can often seem brighter than the rays just before them and they lit up this bird. This effect reminded me of the scene Eric Rohmer's adaptation of the Jules Verne book La Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) where the protagonists discuss Verne's belief that when one sees a rare green flash at sunset, one's thoughts and those of others are revealed as if by magic.


Special light effects, especially at sunset and sunrise seem do have an almost magical feel; when I was looking at the what I thought was a Stonechat filled me with awe for the transformative powers of the sun on the world.


The sun has played a huge role in many early spiritual systems, from Neolithic animism, through ancient religions, such as the Egyptian pantheon, on to the Abrahamic religions, and modern-day neo-paganism.


The stones at Stonehenge [late Neolithic period about 2500 BC] show an alignment to the appearance of the sun on the horizon at the Summer and Winter solstices when looking from the centre of the site over the tip of the Heel stone with its top just at the height of the horizon. Fazal Ahmed, Ancient Sun Worship, The Review of Religions (2010).


Sunset at Stonehenge, just after the winter solstice CREDIT: Moment RF/Gail Johnson, from the Daily Telegraph, Winter solstice 2020: Why do pagans celebrate the shortest day of the year? Cameron Macphail, 21 December 2020


The Egyptians venerated many sun and moon related gods, including Amun - God of the sun and Osiris (god of the dead, dying or setting sun), but perhaps the most important sun of in Egyptian mythology was Horus, who is typically shown as part bird. An early avian god who became one of the most important deities in ancient Egypt. Associated with the sun, sky, and power, Horus became linked with the king of Egypt as early as the First Dynasty (c. 3150-2890 BCE). Although the name 'Horus' might refer to a number of avian deities it principally designates two: Horus the Elder, one of the first five gods born at the beginning of creation, and Horus the Younger who was the son of Osiris and Isis. Following the rise in popularity of the Osiris Myth, Horus the Younger became one of the most important gods in Egypt. I... The kings of Egypt, with some exceptions, all linked themselves with Horus in life and with Osiris in death. The king was thought to be the living incarnation of Horus and, through him, the god gave all good things to his people. He is usually depicted as a man with the head of a hawk but is represented by many different images. His symbols are the Eye of Horus and the hawk. Joshua J. Mark, 2016, Egyptian Gods - The Complete List - Ancient History Encyclopedia


Horus as a falcon wearing the Double Crown of Egypt. 27th dynasty. © State Museum of Egyptian Art, Munich


Sun worship transmogrified into the worship of the God of the Abrahamic Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), some argue. Abraham, who Kierkegaard called ‘the knight of faith, is said to have said And when the night darkened upon him, he saw a star. He said: ‘This is my Lord!’ But when it set, he said: ‘I like not those that set.’ And when he saw the moon rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘If my Lord guide me not, I shall surely be of the people who go astray.’ And when he saw the sun rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord, this is the greatest.’ But when it set, he said, ‘O my people, surely I am clear of that which you associate with God. I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, being ever inclined to God, and I am not of those who associate gods with God.’ (Ch.6:Vs.77-80)


Remnants of sun worship can be found in ancient synagogues in Palestine/Israel. At least seven synagogues in Israel built 1,500 to 1,700 years ago feature mosaics of the zodiac, of all things. The zodiac symbols are in a circle surrounding what appears to be the Greek sun god Helios. The circle is typically enclosed within a square, with human figures representing the four seasons at its corners. Some of the mosaics also show the moon and stars. The Metamorphosis of the Sun God in Ancient Synagogues in Israel, Elon Gilad and Ruth Schuster, Haaretz on line16.09.2020,

Mosaic zodiac and seasons at Zippori, © G dall'Orto

Landscape: Shape, Form and Colour


As well as attending to birds and other animals, I am entranced by the colours, shapes and patterns of trees, shrubs and plants. Suddenly-noticed contrasts of colour, or alignments of trees and/or plants into interesting patterns, absorb me; I look from all sorts of angles to see what the natural world offers in terms of architectonic structures. My father was an architect, and from a young age I was taught to look at the built environment in terms of pattern and form, discovering things that an architect may have intended but are often not noticed. My love of the pattern and shape of trees, plants, landforms, rock outcrops and soil types dates from when I was transfixed by rocks, minerals and landforms when I studied geography and geology at sixth-form college; I was taught to look at the land, and what grows on it, and interpret that landscape. On field trips we made hand-drawn outcrop geological maps through walking a transect of land - many miles long - and transforming what we saw into a two-dimensional representation of our experience in a map.

Mark Rothko, Yellow Over Purple, 1956 Photo © https://arthive.com/markrothko/works/

Eric Ravilious, The Vale of the White Horse, c.1939 Photo © Tate



If you can't get into natural landscape because you are shielding, viewing photographs of landscapes at home can bring solace. Website, such as National Geographic 43 Stunning Landscape Photos (nationalgeographic.com) can be a great source of pleasure


Another source of pleasure from landscape in lockdown is to view on-line landscape art. When I see landscape during nature based lock-down exercise I am often reminded of a specific piece landscape art in my memory. When I return from a nature walk, I often think about and find images of paintings and prints that have some form of connection - intentional or unintentional - with the forms of landscape I have just seen. This often unintentionally entails finding new works of landscape art that I have never seen. Learning about new things is a big boost to my wellbeing.


Above and below I have inserted a few images of landscape art which resonate with what I saw in Hollingbury on Saturday .



Resilience


The setting sun that lit up the trees of Hollingbury Wood and Hill Fort sun, and the feelings that I felt as a result of being deeply immersed in connection with birds, other animals trees, plants, gave me a sense that the world and all life was going to survive the medical emergency; but as the sun set, I felt those familiar anxieties about life and death return: the setting of the sun is a time when many become more anxious; the dawn returns hope.


Hollingdean Golf Course and Hill Fort


Piet Mondriaan, 1908-10, Evening; Red Tree (Avond; De rode boom), Gemeentemuseum Den Haag


The importance of the sun and sun rise in our collective consciousness is depicted in music by Richard Strauss' sun rise motif in his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (inspired by "Zarathustra's Prologue", in Also Sprach Zarathustra, the existential philosophical novel by by Friedrich Nietzsche). The motif includes three notes, in intervals of a fifth and octave. On its first appearance, the motif is a part of the first five notes of the natural overtone series: octave, octave and fifth, two octaves, two octaves and major third (played as an extended C major chord . The motif is drawn from the primary unit of tonal harmony - the tonic, the fifth, the octave, and the third (C-G-C-E), the primacy of these notes in all tonal music underlines the primacy of the sun in all life. When Stanley Kubrick wanted music to symbolise the origin of life in his film version of Arthur C Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey, he chose this motif. The sun moves us, the sun is essential to the maintenance of life on earth; we are instinctively attuned to the rhythms of the sun.


In such challenging times, islands of positive emotion that promote resilience are important. The positive emotion I felt at Hollingbury Wood and on Hollingbury Hill was promoted in part by distraction, through paying close attention to nature, specifically birds, and the patterns and colours of plants and trees. However, it was also promoted a by a sense of meaning; being part of nature and noting nature is intrinsically purposeful, and intrinsically meaningful, for we are part of the great ecological system of nature. My thoughts were not all positive; appreciation of the beauty of nature - including human life - is inextricably linked to the awareness, especially in these covid-19 times, that life is precious and finite; our finitude is underlined every day by news of more covid-19 deaths or the sight of a dishevelled birr or a dead tree. While it is important to have islands of positive emotions, fleeing entirely from the existential reality that faces us - that we will die sometime - is impossible and unhelpful; being reminded of our finitude is a strong prompt to consider how we want to live the life we have. I love the positive experiences that being immersed in nature prompts; but I also want a life that is more than distracting myself from negative emotions, I want a life that is purposeful and meaningful, and based in my values; I think we all want that.


“Live when you live! Death loses its terror if one dies when one has consummated one's life! If one does not live in the right time, then one can never die at the right time.” Irvin D. Yalom, 1992 ,When Nietzsche Wept


P.S. The process of reviewing my photos, to select which to publish in this blog post; researching paintings, music, and historical texts for this blog post, and writing and redrafting the text of this blog, engendered a long period of flow state, which was itself a distraction from troubling thoughts; distraction is, I believe, a good source of wellbeing and resilience.



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