Monday, January 30, 2006

Hill Fire

Returning to The City from an old man’s funeral on Sunday night, we saw a huge orange glow on a hillside above the road, a great glowing arc against an inky-black background. Soon, a huge line of flames became visible, licking their way across the hillside. Obviously, the sensible thing was to move quickly on – but that would bore you, dear reader - so we turned off at the earliest opportunity and soon found ourselves bumping along a rough forest track with very little idea of our location – or, more importantly, that of the fire. After an hour or more of increasingly nervous exploration – our anxieties not lessened by a smoky taste in the air and occasional flake of ash drifting through the beams of our headlights – we finally found a place where we could park and stumble up an icy trail to get a rather distant shot of flames feeding on gorse and heather.

We were just about to give up hopes of getting anything better when a van pulled up and the driver strolled over to talk to us. Being about two miles past the “no access to unauthorised vehicles” sign, we waited guiltily for a lecture on trespass in general and the dangers of wild fires in particular. Instead, the stranger glanced at Miss C’s Canon SLR, currently attached to a large tripod, and invited us to go “somewhere with a much better view”.

Not without trepidation, we started up Miss C’s car and followed our guide – who had not identified himself – deeper into the woods, along ever darker and rougher tracks, at one point crossing a shallow ford. We began to speculate darkly about whether we were being led, or lured, and why he might know so much about where to find the fire…

Eventually, a faint glow appeared above the trees – clearly more than one fire was loose on the mountains tonight, and a deer blundered across the road just in front of us. Now, the air was noticeably smokier and we began to worry about our guide’s judgement – we were very obviously downwind of the fire, which is to say, right in its path. Our fears were allayed somewhat when a line of parked vehicles appeared ahead - several fire tenders and a row of cars. A fireman came over to talk to us... and once again, our presence was accepted as perfectly natural. So far from chasing away foolish civilians, he (and our guide) formed an impression that we were freelancing journalists, so after checking we hadn’t blocked his engine’s exit route, the jovial fireman began to give us some background on the fire (3 companies out, with two “appliances” each).

Our guide, a forester, waited patiently while we changed our footwear before leading us down a narrow path into the trees which formed a dark wall along the right of the logging track. We didn’t have to ask where we were going, as a long and jagged orange wall – the flame front itself – was now visible between the pine trunks, a long line extending as far up and down the hillside as we could see. The trail ended suddenly, and we found ourselves on a high heath, stumbling by flashlight across the heather. The fire front was about 150 metres from the conifer stand, hissing and crackling, and very definitely advancing towards it. As we watched, our guide strode into a rain of sparks and embers and set to work. Through the smoke, other figures could be seen fighting towards us from the windward side, flailing at the flames with long poles. The battle was very obviously unequal: we could see a front hundreds of metres long, but counted only half a dozen men, with the wind gradually pushing the fight towards the trees. Miss C set to work with her camera, while I took the role of the writer, producing a notebook and pen and interviewing the foresters as they paused for breath.

These hill fires, it seems, are generally started here by sheep farmers to encourage the growth of fresh grass for their flocks on the commonage. Unfortunately, rather than co-ordinate small, controlled burns with foresters, they tend to set off huge blazes on the sly and slip quietly away. Sometimes, this kind of carelessness destroys property – fences, forests – and sometimes, it takes lives. We watched as the last fence before the forest ignited, and prepared to retreat. We knew already that if flames reached the trees, a devastating crown fire would roar towards our car - which would then be sitting, literally, on the front line - as the track would become the next fire break, stoutly defended by firemen and foresters.

Then, suddenly, the choking smoke lifted: the wind was changing. All at once, a hopeless battle became an easy victory for the foresters as the wind forced the fire first back onto smouldering ground with little remaining fuel, and then uphill, away from the wood.

Eventually, we turned our backs on the flames and the dark silhouettes shadowing their slow march across the hill face and started for home, not long before midnight. The men we met had been working since early evening, and would work on into the small hours.

Funeral of an old man

Miss C and I spent most of the weekend attending the funeral of a very old man who had been sick a long time. We travelled north to the midlands and, it sometimes, felt, through a time warp, to the country as it was twenty years ago – drab grey houses, clean but shabby B&B’s with strange smells.

The mourners, suitably solemn, but not tearful, also had something of times past about them. The deceased had ten children, and his sons, now long grey themselves, filled the front pews with their large families. The service was shared between 5 or 6 priests, all white-haired, one too old to stand another who head was sunken between his shoulders. The priest who read to us from the New Testament delivered his piece in a sopoforic monotone. He managed to take a story that Buffy would be proud of – “Jesus confronts and defeats demon which in possession of some hapless man” – and strip the drama from it so completely that the tale seemed barely to leave a ripple on the consciousness of the congregation. Despite this, the service was not without moments of beauty, as when three priests joined to sing some phrases in perfect harmony at the climax of the mass. I did wonder if perhaps the very flatness of the preaching was soothing to the family.

A long dark procession wended slowly towards the graveyard, pausing for a moment in front of a door with a black rosette. Among the tombs, a priest led the crowd in prayers from a portable lectern. I noticed that the grave diggers – two – had four long handled shovels standing in the mound of fresh earth beside the grave mouth. Then, sons and grandsons stepped forward, taking these and other from the hands of the professionals, and began to move with quick and personal rhythms. No symbolic handfuls here: as more came forward, tapping the man they came to relieve, I realised they intended to complete the job, a final service to their father. Miss C and I agreed that it was an awful thing: at once touching, and very hard to do.

We left the graveyard not under the traditional drizzle, but beneath a cloudless blue sky, air crisp with a promise of frost, me walking that country lane between Miss C and two of her sisters: easily the most fashionable and glamorous attendees, a very pretty tableaux marchant.

Friday, January 27, 2006

An Awfully Big Adventure

No recent adventures to report, but I’ve just finished booking what should be the biggest adventure that I and Miss C have ever had: a 22,000 mile odyssey featuring a beautiful city at the end of the earth, wild beasts , vast and ancient deserts, a smoke that thunders, and some rather intriguingly-shaped coconuts. I’m tremendously excited - roll on April!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Fruit Ghoul

The afternoon rumbles began, but I came prepared... resisting the siren call of the vending machine I reached across my desk for a pear - ripened to perfection. As I did so, I noticed that it felt just slightly warm to the touch. Thinking about it the reason for it, it comes to me that the pear is warm for the same reason that I am warmer than my surroundings: it is still alive, still respiring, the skin a healthy green-brown. Pensively, I quarter and core it with a sharp knife - really, it ought to be stunned first, but where is the head? I waited a decent interval for the thing to expire, but no vital organs had been pierced: this was going to take too long... hunger and a waft of volatile organics overcame moral scruples, and I found myself munching its living flesh. Delicious…

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Love is...

In the absence of recent excitement, we present A Tale of Past Adventures, including, at no extra charge, a Moral Lesson for the Edification and General Uplifting of the Reader.

Once upon a time, near the end of a very long holiday, Miss C and I found ourselves, by a combination of accident and intention, right in the heart of the Alps: Chamonix – our first-ever chance to explore this vertical wonderland. As impoverished ex-students, we equipped ourselves only lightly: I picked up a free guide to the local mountain walks, bought us one extending walking pole each, and launched us skyward with two tickets for the cable car to the Plan d’Aiguille and L’Aiguille du Midi. A few hours later, I was leading Miss C over rough lumps of granite amid truly spectacular scenery when we realised that we could no longer see the daubs of paint that marked the trail.

A few yards later, the penny finally dropped when our path was barred by a mysterious opening in the ground: a slit with grey-white sides, flooded. Crevasse! All of a sudden, like a horrible conjuring trick, they were all around us. Our previous experience of such things was limited to geography lessons, which in my case stopped at age 15. Dimly, pages from my old text book floated before my mind’s eye… that last tricky ridge of boulders was, in fact, a lateral moraine, and the rock field on which we stood was concealing the surface of a glacier. As it turns out, glaciers are not universally white and gleaming, but can cunningly disguise themselves with debris from the higher slopes.

The feeling of ambush intensified when we tried to retrace our steps to the moraine and found our way apparently barred at every step by another crevasse. They were small enough to be easily jumped – but, unnerved by their sudden appearance, we didn’t try it. Instead, we found bridges or diversions, walking in single file, with Miss C instructed to keep well back but follow me precisely.

Returned to the cable car station, we had the choice of riding it back to the village, or of trying an eastward walk towards the Mer de Glace, Europe’s largest glacier. Several miles of majestic scenery and precipitous path later, we arrived only to find that we had missed the last cog train down the mountain – and a dark storm was gathering overhead. Too tired and hungry to enjoy the spectacle, I offered Miss C the choice of spending a night, minus our luggage, in a mountain hotel at the head of the track, or of walking down through the forest and back into Chamonix.

If there is one thing in nature which Miss C cannot abide, it is thunder. Picture her then, in a dark alpine forest as night falls, with lightening crashing all around, staggering with fatigue and supported by a metal walking pole.

We arrived after dark at the hostel where we had stayed the previous night, crossing our fingers that a bed could still be found… The hostel was, as it turned out, fully booked: but, looking at the two waifs soaked to the bone, badly chilled, visibly sagging with exhaustion, the receptionist took pity on us, and some other poor couple were instantly “unbooked”.

Here, dear reader, is the remarkable thing: not then, and not since, has Miss C ever spoken a single cross word to me about the whole ordeal.