Becalmed

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Algy was surprised to find a lone, flowering gorse bush growing out of the hard ground beside the strange man-made structures which stretched out across the still water, but it provided a comfortingly familiar perch in strange surroundings, so he settled upon it happily, ignoring the usual prickles to his tail feathers. The wind had dropped entirely for a moment and the harbour was completely still; the surface of the sea glimmered like a mirror, reflecting not only the brightly-painted buildings and the boats, but even the clouds, so that they floated serenely across the water as well as the sky. Such a calm was unusual on the wild west coast of Scotland, and Algy gazed in wonder at the translucent water and the clear reflections, thinking of a poem in his collected works of Longfellow, and wondering when the wind would start to blow again:

Becalmed upon the sea of Thought,
Still unattained the land it sought,
My mind, with loosely-hanging sails,
Lies waiting the auspicious gales.

On either side, behind, before,
The ocean stretches like a floor,–
A level floor of amethyst,
Crowned by a golden dome of mist.

Blow, breath of inspiration, blow!
Shake and uplift this golden glow!
And fill the canvas of the mind
With wafts of thy celestial wind.

Blow, breath of song! until I feel
The straining sail, the lifting keel,
The life of the awakening sea,
Its motion and its mystery!

[Algy is quoting the poem Becalmed by the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.]

Des Menschen Seele Gleicht dem Wasser

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Algy flew down to the Sound and perched in a gorse bush already covered in February gold. It was a stormy day, with rapidly alternating phases of darkness and light, and many heavy showers were sweeping in along the Sound from the open ocean. Algy was thinking of some of his friends, who were threatened by dark storm clouds in their own lives, and as he watched the next wave of clouds approach he sang one of his favourite “songs” for them:

Des Menschen Seele
Gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es,
Zum Himmel steigt es,
Und wieder nieder
Ewig wechselnd

The human soul
is like water:
it comes from heaven,
it rises to heaven,
and again it must descend to earth
in an eternal alternation.

Listen to this beautiful recording of Gesang der Geister über den Wassern in a setting by Schubert, performed by the Vienna Vocalists and the String Ensemble of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

[Algy is singing part of Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (The Song of the Spirit over the Waters) by the late 18th/early 19th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. You can read the full text of the poem in German and English, but Algy feels that the English translation given there does not do full justice to the original.]

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Algy could see from the rapidly darkening sky that another shower of heavy sleet was approaching, so he tucked himself into a large hollow beneath the battered old gorse bushes, made a cosy bed of dry bracken to rest on, and settled down to wait for the skies to clear again.

Algy hopes that you will all find a cosy place of shelter this weekend too, especially if your own skies are looking black…

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Algy flew around the ridge and down to the burn, which drained the water from the steep, rocky slopes and the peat bogs safely into the sea. Despite the mass of prickles beneath his tail feathers, Algy perched in a large gorse bush and settled down to watch the burn playing in its pebbly bed and the light playing on the gold and russet grasses. There were many periods of bright golden sunlight, but from time to time the sky turned entirely black, and almost immediately the heavens opened, drenching the ground – and Algy – with yet another shower of icy sleet.

There had been a noticeable improvement in the weather, and for the time being it felt almost warm in sheltered spots out of the wind. Algy knew just such a spot, where the burn broadened out for a stretch between rocky banks covered with overhanging gorse and heather, and flowed for a while towards the west, so that it got plenty of afternoon sunshine. He found himself a perch low over the shallow water, where he could watch the play of light and shadow at close quarters, and dozed happily there in the sunshine for an hour or two, or maybe three…

Snow rarely lasts very long on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, so Algy was not surprised to find that it was soon followed by rain, and before long the landscape had been transformed again.

When he woke up the next day, Algy immediately detected a subtle change, almost as though spring might be hiding somewhere just around the corner. He found himself a bright spot beneath an isolated gorse bush on the hill, covered his legs with dry bracken to keep himself warm, and sat there in the cool morning sunshine, letting the stiff breeze blow-dry his feathers until they felt all fluffy again. There was definitely a sense of something new in the light and in the air, and Algy remembered a poem by Hilaire Belloc:

          The winter moon has such a quiet car
          That all the winter nights are dumb with rest.
          She drives the gradual dark with drooping crest,
          And dreams go wandering from her drowsy star.
          Because the nights are silent, do not wake:
          But there shall tremble through the general earth,
          And over you, a quickening and a birth.
          The sun is near the hill-tops for your sake.

          The latest born of all the days shall creep
          To kiss the tender eyelids of the year;
          And you shall wake, grown young with perfect sleep,
          And smile at the new world, and make it dear
          With living murmurs more than dreams are deep.
          Silence is dead, my Dawn; the morning’s here.

[Algy is quoting the poem February by the early 20th century Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc.]

Like most people in the area, Algy had been unwell with “that virus”, but he was feeling somewhat better now and in need of a new adventure. He flew over to the great sea loch, and found one of his favourite viewpoints. The gorse made a very spiky perch, but he was so intent on watching the light over the loch that he hardly noticed the prickles.