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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

A Winter Walk

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It is still dark when I set off, at around 7.00 in the morning, and a thick sugar of frost coats the ground. Though probably about minus 5, I am warm in my new Christmas gifts of a Merino wool base layer, and a fleece. Luckily, also, the track out to the farm is rutted and stony, and affords better grip than the greased tarmac of roads and pavements, and I walk quickly, hurrying to find a good spot before the dawn behind me finally breaks above the brow of Quarrington hill. Ahead of me the track remains a dark line, and I check behind me every now and then to see the pinkish light concentrated in the east, but meekly failing to break through and spread itself more generally across this morning world. At what point will that light colour change and shift, at once rapidly and yet somehow imperceptibly? At what precise moment does the vague gauze of oranges and pinks tip into daylight? I know that taking photographs at this time of day is the most difficult, because everything changes so fast, and a scene that looks good in one light has vanished by the time you can get your camera out. Happily, I have with me another Christmas gift, a Lowepro Fastpack, which allows me to carry all my gear and yet reach it by just swinging the bag from my shoulder. And so I can walk onwards, enjoying the remainder of the concealing night, confident that the moment a glance back shows me a good scene, I will be able to stop and shoot on the spot.

As I reach a line of trees, I see some possibility, and brush my way through tall grass, crumbling ice away as I pass, to reach a fence on which I can lean. Taking my camera out, I realise that if darkness is the enemy of the photographer - for without light, nothing can happen - the cold it often brings is his most able footsoldier. For it is only once I remove my gloves to fiddle with zips and buttons that I realise how cold it is. Otherwise snug in my layers, my fingers now tell me by their sluggishness that I need to get moving soon.

So I rather too hurridly dash off a few snaps, and set of again. It is only once I get back home that I realise that in my haste I have forgotten to check that the vibration reduction, essential for shooting in this poor light, was switched on. The blurry fringes of the trees in this image therefore tell the photographic weather.

Colour is now starting to smudge into the world. Firstly the grey greens of the fields, and then a rust of dead bracken. As I pass hedgerows, I amusedly set off anxious flurries of wings and leaves. But as I creep past the farm, and see the breakfast table through the lit window, with silhouettes cast against the walls, I feel somehow guilty. For what reason do I have to be out here, two miles from the nearest village, at this time of the morning, as others are only just getting up. I mentally note good reason for getting a dog number 36 - for of course dog walkers have an excuse at being about before the work day has begun. As it is, though, I wonder whether I dare, if challenged, admit that I am going out shooting - before revealing that my ammunition is a light sensitive electronic square, rather than a gun cartridge. Humour usually being at its most depleted at this time of day, I suspect that I would not dare be so witty, and just mumble something and be cast as a harmless hobbiest.

Anyway, I now hurry onwards, and find another half-shot in what is by now a duller half-light. I pause to watch a pair of squirrels squabble high in a pine tree. Their machine gun chatter seems somehow anachronistic in the quiet, but it is hard to tell whether they are really being agressive, or whether they are just circusing around, swinging and scurrying about the branches. It is with the gasp of the big tent audience that I see one of the squirrels suddenly lose his grasp and plumment, flailing, about thirty feet to the ground. I do not see him land, though I hear a thud. It is with relief that a long ten seconds later I see him scurry up the trunk again, to resume combat.

When I reach the ponds, it is not surprising that they are glassed with inch-thick ice. With the sun just now glowing in the background, the silhouettes, textures and washed-out colours in the scene are worth capturing.

But it is the details around about that are most interesting. Frost changes the natural world into a sharpened version of itself, setting off shapes and tracing lines of leaves with thin shards of ice.

After tarrying about the ponds with my camera out and gloves off, I am forced to move again. Just as I put my camera away, there is a rustle in the bushes ahead, and then not more than ten yards in front, two roe deer burst from cover and run across the path, leaping across the fence into the woods on the other side. I have often seen deer elsewhere on this walk, but never down by the ponds or this low in the woods, so I keep extra alert as I follow the path through the woods, looking out for further signs. Of course, now that I have my long lens out, I see or hear nothing. But instead I have time to muse that the last time I went this route, the bluebells were out, whereas today brown is the dominant colour on the wood floor.

However, it is easier going now, with the ground forged to an iron hardness by months of cold, that in spring, when showers turn it muddy underfoot. Soon I am retracing my steps back towards home, where the main road is now a buzz of commuter traffic. My day, too, starts, though I do appreciate the irony that as I sit at my computer, with the central heating having been turned off after its morning burst, I am colder indoors than I was out, where, bitter though the air was, I walked into my own warmth.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:35 pm


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