September 7 2019
I’m sitting beside Wastwater, looking at the canvas and the land beyond it where the sheer rocky screes tumble into the lake. I’m still, and quiet, simply watching the play of cloud shadows on hills.
Great Gable looms above the lake’s north end, pushing its top into the blue, teasing clouds. It must be windy up there, but here, by the lake shore, for the first time in almost ten days, I’m warm enough to sit without a jumper. The grass is green, harebells bob their feather-light heads in the breeze, and there are birds chattering: robins, wrens, grey wagtails.
The sun has emerged from a dense cloud and is shining now on the canvas. The words are set against the dramatic background of water, stone and sky. FEEL IT IN YOUR HEART.
It’s an invitation – an offering, to reflect, not just on the superficial beauty of a view, but also on how it feels to be here, to be a part of something bigger. I’ve been pondering on politics a lot and wonder how it feels, really, to be dishonest and to lie; and how it feels to stand up for the greater good and put personal preferences (maybe) to one side. It’s been an eventful week in parliament and integrity has certainly been in question. Boris Johnson’s own brother has resigned from the Tory party. The Labour, Lib Dem and SNP leaders have joined together to defy Boris Johnson and hold him to account, unanimously demonstrating a lack of trust in him. Beyond this strangely time-consuming bubble of UK politics, hurricanes have devastated the Bahamas, wildfires are ravaging Queensland in Australia, Iceland has held a public mourning ceremony for the disappearance of its first major glacier, and fires in the Arctic are burning, burning. How does it feel to be in the midst of this, in this time, where some truths are undeniable and extremely frightening, and the course out of catastrophe has not yet been set?
These are times when the heart quickens / as it would if you walked along a narrow ledge, hundreds of feet above the ground / the ground shifting / the uncertainty of it
I think back to the Line of Sight installation we did in 2017 and the question: ‘Can we settle with the uncertainty of it?’ Little has changed. If anything, since 2017 uncertainty has only grown. Political instability, severe climate events, and the models that show an exponential rise in average temperatures, which, if they continue, will undeniably have devastating consequences for the whole of life.
Can we settle with the uncertainty of it? No. We cannot. Now is not the time to settle, to wear the mantle of complacency, to procrastinate. Yet making large enough changes is so hugely challenging. To stop the use of fossil fuels now? Few individuals and no societies are ready to do that, voluntarily. We have been reliant on them for so long …
I shake myself. Why am I writing about all of that when I’m here with the sound of water and the mesmerising reflections on the black lake? Sometimes it seems that the larger picture is something that the head should be concerned with, while the beauty of a September evening by a lake, the drift of clouds over a crisp blue sky rinsed fresh by rain, sunlight in the trees, pebbles on the shore, and relaxed breaths are the preserve of the heart; as if the head can be occupied elsewhere with the wrangling of irresolvable problems and anxiety at devastation and loss. But it’s not like that; there is not an optional shift between thoughts and the body’s feelings. The heart will reveal the import of your thoughts, or feel lifted and ablaze when you feel joy, or love, or pain, just as your gut will alert you to danger, to dishonesty in another person. Reasoning cannot take you away from the messages your body gives you any more than your body can lie. To feel things with your heart or in your bones, is to tap in to the barometer of what really matters, and then to choose: to use this deep sense alongside reason and intellect.
I pause, and look around, make the most of the peace of this moment. Hazel trees flourishing. Thistles and knapweed in the long grass. A couple has just stopped to talk. They’ve walked today all along the skyline, way above the shifting screes. They tell me they’re from Whitehaven, and they’re aiming to walk all 214 Wainwrights. The conversation, perhaps predictably, focuses on the weather. Smiling at the warmth of today, they recall that last weekend they walked through hail showers and double rainbows.
It’s 6pm and the low sun spreads tree shadows on the canvas. The air is still and the lake very slightly rippled. Two paddle boarders and a kayaker in the distance look like toys placed on the lake, yet their voices arrive here with us, crystal clear. They are relaxed and calm, like the evening, and this valley doesn’t even hold a hint of the trouble it can throw at you in a wet and windy day, when the lake is whipped to a frenzy, the fell tops are obscured, and rain comes at you sideways. The place feels sublime and has held itself as a postcard, with the lake slowly lapping.
I have slowed. I have let go of concerns and have just been here, only here. My back has loosened, my neck and shoulders, which were strung like a bow taut for the flight of an arrow, have slackened. The lake is a sheen of copper on turquoise, a subtly changing spread of burnt umber. Of all the bodies of water in the Lake District only Wastwater can shine like this. The sun is striking the scree slopes at just the right angle to bring out their browns and the lake sings them back. As the sun sinks, the colours intensify. First bronze, then copper, and now gold. In some of the clefts between great sliding sheets of stone, rowans heavy with berries are bursts of radiant red, a celebration of fecundity and growth in this harsh place where the land tumbles and slips.
A woman stops to chat. She’s French, and we’re able to converse somewhere in between two languages as take in the scene. She tells me where she lives, between Calais and Bologne. We talk about the canvas and she tells me that in French, you would say ‘feel it with your heart’ as if the phrase is somehow more about action than reaction – and she shows me some photographs of the coast near her home, a place where she finds beauty and solace. She loves it there, and she loves the Lake District, she says: and both need protection.