Reading the Wainwright Prize: Claxton

In the run up to the announcement of this year’s Wainwright Prize winner, we’re sharing extracts from each of the shortlisted books – starting with Mark Cocker’s Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet.

JANUARY

6 January 2013

Claxton

ClaxtonBecause we have so drained the English landscape of any danger to ourselves, I think we easily overlook how potent a factor fear is in the lives of animals. In our parish, where peregrines and harriers are constantly back and forth on patrol, the flocks of lapwings and golden plovers often seem to spend their entire days merely standing and are almost without activity. Yet come darkness and the moon’s rise the birds zigzag across the fields on those broad, strangely creaking wings to feed in its protective pale glow. You realise that daylight is all about vigilance and security, while night is the time to feed.

The natural accompaniment to all their days spent standing and watching are the plovers’ weird convulsive dreads when, almost like an electric current, fear flushes over the whole flock and launches it skywards. Often one cannot find any genuine cause for these hair-trigger responses. Yet the simultaneity of it is astonishing, as is the beautifully coordinated sweep and flow of their movement. The dreads’ impact upon our human senses and imagination is presumably similar to its effect on any predator. The viewer is at once mesmerised but confused by the manner in which so many different animals pool and sway as one. In fact, it so perplexed early ecologists that some even wondered if the birds were not capable of thought transference.

What we overlook perhaps is the rehearsals. Over thousands, and probably millions, of years, natural selection has favoured those birds with an ability to bury their identities and match precisely their movements to the actions of neighbours. Each generation slowly, cumulatively passed on the advantageous genes, but we forget the ragged processes and see only the flock’s fine-honed finished machinery. It is strange to think that as we observe the amoeba-like globe of lapwings wheel and swerve in fantastic unity, we are connected to the instantaneous rush of their nerves and to the ancient time from which such wild perfection has been sculpted.

10 January 2011

Claxton

I open the door and straightaway can see the four metal rooks in our weathervane all tilting southwards. It may be a south wind but it is hard and sharp. It drives across the River Yare, and the great white steam billow rising above the sugarbeet factory at Cantley sails hard north-north-west for about a hundred metres, then drowns in that vast cold blast. The wind seems to brush through the valley and I am intrigued to note how even the swans, normally so immune to heat and cold, are all in the lee of an earth bank just south of a flight pond. At a distance they look like a last drift of snow heaped up against the black peat.

In the aftermath of last month’s freeze the whole landscape has been burnt down to three basic colours. There is the leached green of the marsh itself and then the sedge brown to all the dyke edges and the patches of reed. Then finally there are the woodlands on every horizon. Superficially as I spin around they all seem black, but if I look harder there is a slightly warmer note mingled in, a faint purplish tone that is added in our area only by the alder trees. And there is no mistake: in aggregate the woods are actually puce coloured, precisely the same shade as an old scab.

For all this, as I walk by the Yare there is the faintest hint of change. Perhaps the reason for this lies entirely elsewhere: our technical knowledge of the date and increment in the season. Perhaps it is the fact that the decorations are all now stowed and the pine needles swept away. Yet there is a sort of bright note in the air, hard to define or to lay to any cause, but it is there indisputably, and if I should give it a name, I wouldn’t call it the start of spring. It is more the end of lifelessness.

 

11 January 2010

Claxton

The ice has steadily corralled the valley’s flock of wigeon into ever-smaller areas of open water. At times two thousand birds are compressed into a dense mass along Claxton’s main drain, and when they move into the fields they appear as a single dark slough of life in the hollows of the frozen marsh. On the one hand one senses how the stress of prolonged cold has left the birds more tolerant than usual of a close approach. On the other, and seemingly without good cause, the ducks are also extremely jittery. They bluster in broken wheeling showers from one part of the river to the next. Then, just as inexplicably, they will rise off the Yare altogether and flop into the adjacent dykes. Nothing seems to settle the collective mood.

I love the way they take flight in a prolonged even sequence, so that they peel off the water as a continuous blanket that instantly atomises and falls back to Earth amid a downpour of contact notes. The sound of wigeon is a soft high whistling rather like the breathy note one instinctively makes when told of some startling revelation. Multiply the sound by a thousand and it becomes a tide of music filled with a sense of mildness, innocence and confusion. Yet it also carries other potential resonances. The sound beautifully evokes both place and weather. It seems indivisible from wind and open landscapes where the horizon is distant and the space immense. One cannot imagine a wigeon has ever heard its voice bounce off some solid topography as an echo, except perhaps during that luxurious fortnight cocooned in the egg beneath its mother’s breast. By the same token, one cannot conceive how the adult wigeon can ever produce its questioning note and not be instantly reassured by a neighbour’s reply. So wigeon song is at once a song of open space but also of companionability. It is also the defining soundtrack for this parish in winter.

Taken from Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker

Find details of the fill Wainwright Prize shortlist here

The winner will be announced on 22nd April

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