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Tuesday, 26th August 2003
Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

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archWarning! This page of the diary makes rather gloomy - or should I say philosophical - reading! You have been warned . . .

The soft rain - it's the most rain we've had for a month - has eased off (no it hasn't: the moment I wrote that it started again!) but the sombre grey afternoon suits my mood. After last week's computer viruses, tax returns and compiling of notes I can't shake off an anxious feeling.

When I set out to the post office I take a folding stool and a flask of Earl Grey, buying a chocolate flapjack when I post my letter. I shelter under the stone arch of the road bridge for half an hour's quiet reflection.

The broad concrete towpath under the gently sloping arch always reminds me of Paris: wish I could be there this afternoon to visit a gallery and a café!

overflowAs it is, these calmly reflective murky waters suit my mood better than sitting by the bustling Seine. The old overflow of Coxley Beck looks out blankly over the canal pool which is broad enough for a barge to turn around on. The hollow sockets are like the vacant eyes of the stone skull of some gargantuan Aztec idol.

One of the things that is troubling me is the large brown envelope that dropped through the door last week: news of yet another public enquiry, this time about a footpath, in the seemingly endless process that will lead to the destruction of a flood meadow, 300 yards upstream from this outlet, on a bend of the beck. It's going for housing.

It upsets me because I can either do nothing and then feel guilty for the rest of my life or spend ages on an impassioned report that will do no good at all (the sensible option of an equally useless short note of protest to salve my conscience doesn't seem to exist in my troubled universe: I can't be half-hearted about something that has broken my heart).

poolThe World Tree

Two ash trees, one sporting yellow green bunches of keys, grow above the outlet at the other side of the road. Their roots go down towards the beck. As I don't need to remind regular readers, ash trees remind me of Yggdrasil, the great ash of Viking legend whose branches supported the sky and whose roots went down to hell. It sprang from the body of the Ymir, father of the frost-giants, who was slaughtered by Odin and his brothers. I'd suggest that the stone sockets could represent part of Ymir's skull except that his skull became the vault of heaven.

Like the universe - and like my inner emotional landscape today - there are pulses moving through this scene.

Above me there's the continuous stop and start of traffic which makes a revolting stench of fumes drifting down. Perhaps this represents the relentless rush of our busy 21st century lives.

narrowboatsThe canal flows placidly below and, while I've been sitting here, three narrow boats have chugged by. Perhaps this represents the gentler flow of our everyday personal lives - a flow that goes in a different direction to the restless traffic above.
mute swan

A pair of mute swans drift silently by, taking their reflections with them (as you'd expect) under the dark stone arch.

Sibelius's swan, however, is a rather different animal. His is a black swan, a sinister spirit that glides over the black waters of Tuonela, the Land of the Dead. The shadowy strings and the eerie cor anglais of the 'Swan of Tuonela' are music of a half-world between death and life. It is, frankly, a scary piece of music.

Review from


pond skaterA pond skater goes by, drifting with the flow on the mirrored surface film. It punctuates this graceful glide two or three vertical jumps - like a child on a pogo stick - making me smile: it's as if it can't contain its exuberance and joy at being part of the wonderful cycle of life (a biologist would explain that this is simply its way of cleaning itself).

Fish are jumping, straight out of their aquatic world, perhaps to snatch an insect from the aerial element above.

Wonderful Life

Talking of Wonderful Life, there's scene in that film where Clarence, a trainee angel, suggests that James Stewart shouldn't leap from the bridge into the river. Stewart's character considers has made a complete failure of his life but, unknown to him, he has touched so many other lives. I like Wonderful Life almost as much as Groundhog Day, which has a similar theme which it explores with a little more 'attitude'.

Stephen Jay Gould uses Wonderful Life as the title for his discussion of the fossil life of the Burgess Shales 530 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion of life. Pikaia, a lancelet-like creature found in the Shales has what appear to be the beginnings of a spinal chord. If Pikaia (or a creature rather like it) hadn't been there in the sea at that time; if it, like Stewart, had suffered oblivion in the waters, then there'd be an alternative universe where we wouldn't be here, nor would any of the vertebrates as we know them have appeared on our planet, and that would have included the fish, birds and dinosaurs.


OwenIf you'll forgive this dismal vein just a little longer, this reminds me of a friend, a flatmate, Owen we'll call him, who walked down to the parapet of this bridge at midnight 25 years ago and prepared to jump in. He'd just been diagnosed as having cancer and he'd had an unfortunate love affair. No Clarence to save him.

Or was there? A man who Owen later described to me as 'a drunk' came and chatted to him, the moment passed and Owen came back to the flat and I made him a cup of tea (my answer to everything).

Looking at the murkiness of this water, jumping in the canal wouldn't have been a pleasant way to go but sadly Owen died a year or so later of the cancer.

His last words to me - or to anyone else - were along the lines of (I don't remember exactly):

'Richard; don't forget to leave the door open!'

He meant for the ambulance-men who were going to come in with a stretcher via the back door of the flat to take him for his regular hospital appointment but I think to 'remember to leave the door open' is good advice to any of us. I promised Owen I would but I'm not sure that I've lived up to that promise.

When his brother came to clear out his room he asked if I'd like to keep something of Owen's: his copy of The Lord of the Rings, a book he and I used to discuss, is on the bookshelf behind me as I type this from my notebook written by the canal.

Hidden Streams

poolAnyway, back to the canal basin: the ebb and flow of traffic at the lights, the steady flow of traffic on the canal: not many people realise that, like the universe and like our psyches, there's a hidden stream flowing beneath it all: Coxley Beck flows in a stone tunnel (which must be nearly two centuries old) beneath the canal to its outlet in the River Calder by the Bingley Arms.

Like the hidden undercurrents in our lives it occasionally overflows - through those stone sockets - in times of storm.

You can love a place even if it is grey, dismal and reeks of traffic. next page

Richard Bell

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