Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Dreaming of Herons

From the window of the train, I can see the outline of craggy hills, jumbling into mist as a starless sky melts into indigo dawn.  We are shuttling through the early morning, and there are few signs of life among the bare hills and leafless trees whose branches hang sadly over the ice-like lake like broken umbrellas, stroking chill, rain-braided waves of wind.  As I rest my head back against the chair, I gaze through glass speckled in the dew-like diamonds of raindrops, sunlight splinters through a fringe of cypresses ranged along the horizon like a sentry, and a long stretch of water is illuminated, dark banks fading into the black edges of a thick, foreboding forest. And gracefully poised on the riverbank, levering its thin, rod-like neck towards the water, a silvery, svelte heron pauses to reflect, as the sunlight gleams against its eye, shining like an amethyst as it jabs the surface of the water, knifing for prey.

As the train swerves around the curve of the river, I wonder what corner of the world I have found myself in on this silent, dark morning.  I recognize some of the landscape as my own Calder Valley environment; the long, sweeping battalions of trees recall something from Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Black Forest.  As my eyes slowly prize themselves open, and the real dawn filters through the window like a glass of spilt lemonade, I realize I must have been on board what poet Lotte Kramer calls the Dream Train:

This train never stops.
I'm a parcelled person
In its warm movement,
Assured of eventual stations.

 With the real world around me so tortured and confused, I have felt myself of late immersed in a dream life, and these nightly journeys seem to veer between the idyllic and the cursed.  But that they should feature sightings of imagined herons ought not to surprise me, given the prevalence of that bird in my current daily life and writing.  My ongoing writing project, hopefully to evolve into a book, has of late seen me journeying to see them and to learn about them from experts both here in Yorkshire and in Lancashire, and they are seen here in the valley in relatively high numbers, owing to the watery nature of much of our environment.

In my dream, the parts of the fantasy riverbank which seemed to merge most clearly into that of my real world surroundings was the edge of land where the heron gingerly fished - land which, in real life, following the willowy course of the Calder as it meanders past the rural fringe of Sowerby Bridge, the skeletal walls of the old wireworks, and the road which hurtles towards Halifax and motorway, plays stony host to clefts and dips of gorse, red campion, poppies, planes of buttercups and tiny blue blazes of forget-me-nots; wildflower banks, sandy lanes hung with cow parsley and tall,glistening grasses; hedgerows tunneled by tough shrews and quick, zig-zagging wrens and blackbirds.


Land which has been butchered and shrunk in order to accommodate an expansion of housing which has already had serious consequences for ecology: the removal of native trees, the destruction of natural habitats and the proven exacerbation of flooding problems during the great deluge of 2015.  This area, roughly known as the Milner Royd nature reserve, lies within walking distance of my home, and I have watched with horror as - my communications (and the protests of many local groups) brushed off by the town's Labour MP and the local Tory councillor - have been disregarded. Several sections of land and water have been protected for the benefit of wildlife, not least the herons who depend on the water for their diet and survival, but huge chunks have indeed been swallowed up for development - a triumph of Greed over Need.

It is rather fitting, I suppose, that one of the poems I discover on waking from my heron-themed slumbers, is another by Lotte Kramer - her 1980 poem Nine Herons on Reclaimed Land, in which Surprised by sun / That reddened through the morning frost they:

Stand as carved 
And motionless as this blue air. 


 Land falls from us, writes Lotte Kramer, In long, stiff tongues that grip the sky, closing her poem with a Pantheistic blending of human-heron prophecy, twinning both species in a shared predicament, where every breath is ominous of waiting sea.

As with poetry, visions can be distilled within a dream in lucid and coherent ways, offering us the chance to "see" details perhaps processed by the mind's eye in waking life, but shunted to the dusty cellars of peripheral visions and hushed afterthoughts.  The dream dictionaries I consult tell me that my heron dreams suggest a need for balance and serenity. Often, the world of dreams seems preferable to the Dystopia of reality, and it is in this hazy world of the transient and half-glimpsed where I have sometimes, unsuspectingly, been witness to the clarity of nature.


you slip,
a wirework whisper
of cold smoke

frozen in a gauze of ash,
you stitch yourself,
a stone-spun ghost,
unfurling from the loom
of dawn's grey rain
into my sleep-sunk vision,
eye me loudly
in thickening silence.


  1. Darling Simon...so beautiful. All the best melancholy, all the most truthful reverence; and the flowingest music.