five meditations on a sketch of a dipper by Frances Hatch
Shortly after spotting the dipper that had arrived at the River Bride, ten minutes walk from our home, Frances painted it. She dipped the Chinese brush into clean water and then loaded the wet hairs with watercolour, before making a dipper-shape on her sketchbook page.
Her eye was not after an anatomically perfect representation of clincus clincus, the rotund member of the ousel family that haunts flowing water. Rather, the action of dipping the brush into water, then into ink, then making the brush tip dip toward the paper constituted a likeness to the action of the bird itself – a dipper-likeness, so to speak. This quality is not in the photograph Frances took at the time she spotted the dipper. The camera lens barely registered the creature's white bib and you have to look pretty hard to make it out.
In Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, during a Lakeland adventure which takes young Titty Walker and her siblings a good distance from home, Titty tries to focus a telescope on the diminishing figure of her mother. Her eye is so brimful of tears that she can't focus properly.“That’s with looking too hard”, she tells herself “Try the other eye.” [i]Frances' Chinese brush painting of the West Dorset dipper is, I think, a try with “the other eye.”
If there is such a thing as looking too hard, with too close a scrutiny, too sharp a scope, then Titty Walker learns that there are other ways of seeing – seeing with “the other eye”- and her lesson comes through an encounter with a dipper. She comes across the creature on an island shore. Her eye is drawn to the kind of behaviour described in a pocket guide book I have on the shelf: ‘undoubtedly when entering the water it grips with its strong feet but the method of progression beneath the surface is by swimming, using the wings– flying under water.’ [ii] Momentarily Titty's curious gaze is drawn away from the amphibious dipper and towards a steamer on the lake. This man-made object has a purchase on the surface but it is unlike the bird which is at home above and under the water. Titty's eyes return to the dipper: the creature appears to her to have a ‘careless kind of curtsey.' Her reaction could be called anthropocentric: Titty has projected onto the dipper that brand of human behaviour we call 'manners', actions which don't really belong to the world of a small brown bobbing water bird. But might branding Titty's response be unfair to her ?
Remember that she sees the bird's curtsey as careless. The world of 'manners' is a world of caution. The dipper's actions, below and above the water, are without such care. And it as if we, along with Titty Walker, are invited to look just a little bit harder at the dipper which moves ‘as if it were in the air, fast along the bottom of the lake.’ When it resurfaced, the dipper ‘went on flying with no difference at all.. except that in the air its wings moved faster.’
Titty finds herself so overtaken by awe at this sight that she instinctively bows and she thinks to herself:
‘It’s very hard not to bob to a dipper when a dipper bobs to you.’
It seems to me that Titty's bobbing to the bowing dipper is a form of respect, and a significant one because it is instinctive and not constrained by thought. The reader is left to imagine how the sight of the dipper (the tell-tale bubbles it made below the water and the gratuitous spray it caused when it bobbed out ) caused Titty Walker to bow back.
Something very much like this response to the non human world was recorded by the travel writer Barry Lopez after he visited the Arctic region. [iii]
As one reviewer of Lopez' Arctic Dreams noted 'the book begins and ends with a bow.' Right at the end of Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes joining an Inuit hunting party who track down a walrus and kill it. Lopez can't reconcile in his mind the way in which his Eskimo hosts reverence the natural world and yet, when they make a significant kill, they aren't pious about it, and they express tremendous joy in bloodletting. Lopez cannot get his mind around this. And he finds himself instinctively bowing, a gesture that is not simply about consent or politeness, but the physical and emotional and spiritual need to submit to what one cannot understand with the conscious mind. The reviewer of Arctic Dreams suggests that Lopez' bowing was a bodily way of negotiating a paradox, a gentle submitting to something outside oneself that cannot be controlled by an any strategy of the reasoning mind. And there's bowing or bobbing at the opening of Barry Lopez' book too.
Lopez walks by himself on the Arctic tundra in the twilight, amazed at the unexpected sight of nests made by plovers and snowy owls.
‘Their eggs glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer painting. I marvelled at this intense and concentrated beauty on the vast table of the plain.’
'I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, toward the birds and the evidence of life in their nests-because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.'
The two kinds of bowing were in different locations and situations, but something links them. Radical astonishment at a community which rejoices in bloodletting and reverencing elicits a bow because Lopez realizes his reasoning mind has its limits; and it is radical astonishment that has Lopez bob in appreciation of Vermeer-like beauty showing up in the birds' eggs he stumbles across in an unhospitable place.
Titty Walker's dipper bobbed out of sight. She waited.‘But it did not come.’ What arrives in the wake of the bird's disappearance is a realization that the island had to be guarded against Amazons.
Ransome does not overload this passage of writing with too much ecological freight, but the suggestion here is that the dipper's appearance – and disappearance – has taught Titty something about reverence and the protection of environments where reverence can become as natural as breathing, as natural as Barry Lopez found it when, hands in pockets, he bowed toward the fecund tundra birds. It is as if Titty learns to plunge, as a dipper plunges, from one medium into another: from reality (a bird flying underwater!) to imagination (imagining that, out of reverence, such habitats need some kind of guarding.
As Titty peers down at the dipper as it moves underwater she presses on nearby rock. She sees it as my pocket guide to birds describes it: 'head well down, its body oblique, it holds itself down by muscular exertion.’
Titty Walker is a fictional character who shows us something of what it might be like to harness an act of will with a feat of imagination. She presses into the rock as she observes the bird. When it disappears from sight she presses her imagination to consider what guarding the dipper's environment might mean.
Like the dipper, she has learned to become an adept in two regions. In the character of Titty Walker, gravity of the will (how can I keep on looking?) and imagination’s wings (how can I go on guarding?) come together.
'I can't coax the bird to my hand' wrote poet Kathleen Jamie after an encounter with a dipper at a waterfall. [iv]On the morning Frances sighted the dipper near our house, her photograph could not coax the creature any nearer. But if her sketch succeeded it was through not trying to coax the dipper to her hand but by dipping the Chinese brush into clean water, then loading the wet bristles with watercolour, before making on her sketchbook page a fine, proud dipper-likeness.
[i] Arthur Ransome 'Swallows and Amazons', Random House, 2001, p. 224.
[ii] The quotes concerning Titty's sighting of the dipper come from the chapter 'Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday' in 'Swallows and Amazons.' The pocket guide referred to is 'The Birds of The British Isles & Their Eggs: A Handy Pocket Guide With Descriptive Text' by T.A .Coward, Frederick Warne & Co. 1920.
[iii] Barry Lopez 'Arctic Dreams; Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape', Picador, 1987.
[iv] Kathleen Jamie's poem 'The Dipper.'