I confess that I tried to make a sour dough starter and failed.
Before. Lockdown Level 5. My niece passes on the idea and sends a video link. I watch a charismatic and patient young London baker explain his life’s passion. During. I spend two weeks feeding (too sporadically?) my ravenous potential-loaf-of-bread child. It doesn’t rise a centimetre. I give up. After. There is no incredible sourdough loaf. Maybe another time.
I’ve come to think of things in terms of the before, the during and the after. It’s surprising what stays with you.
When I see the BBC link to readers’ photographs with the theme of ‘paths’ I pause, measuring whether scanning great images is a good way to utilise my permitted 30 minutes of daylight online browsing during the time of self-isolation.
Before. I wonder briefly what the photographs will capture in the time of Corona. A photograph of a group on the Otter Hiking Trail won’t do anymore. Entry to national parks of all types is forbidden in many countries. Beaches are also forbidden. I hear on the news that Australia surfers are allowed to surf but not to tarry. My mind goes down side roads. Does a surveillance drone leave traces of its path in the air? I think that should be recorded by somebody in a photograph. We fixed up our fishpond just in time. Our koi Eugene, a terrible pale monster, knocks the smaller fish aside and gobbles up all the pellets. Could I capture his scything water path?
The ‘before’ part is over quickly in this case. The ‘during’ part is a couple of clicks away. I’m too late to send photographs this time round. I’ve missed this theme. They might not accept a photo from a non−UK citizen, even though it’s a time of global outreach and hands stretched across balconies from Moscow to Bogota. Globalisation is complicated. The theme of ‘reading’ happened a while ago. I hope they’ll bring it back. I have lots of possible photos for that… The one I took yesterday shows a sawed off cat (the cat jungle gym effect) with Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Men carefully positioned above his head.
Lockdown feels a lot like reading in a purple bedroom or under a pear tree or perched on a waste paper mountain. There is escape in the solitude. The Magus is being re−read. John Fowles, you are my Corona life-saver, I am reminded that nobody writes eroticism and suspense like you do. I am grateful that in the foreword you insist that none of it is as effortless or as plotted as it seems and that in fact it is the result of copious rewriting and you were never quite sure yourself what it was about or why the story had such wide appeal. You make it possible for the rest of us to continue putting words down. How do I hold the ‘during’ for longer? How do I make myself remember The Magus with all its enigmatic sorcery? It seems important, somehow, that I should remember its lessons – both literary and philosophical − better.
Back to the snail. Days later I get to the ‘after’ part. A photo taken in natural light of a little pearlescent land snail making its own path on another path (perspective is all) has something about it – the other images, some amazing ones, all with a lonely feel, have become the background. The small mucus path, each contraction of the muscular foot placing a print as it glides forward, roughly mirrors the geometry of the larger stone paving and cement joint configuration. The photographer captures the graph it draws, which is not flattening, and the precise moment its sovereign house casts a bulbous shadow. See the photograph here: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-51400405
It has something of ‘A Small Good Thing’, Raymond Carver’s indelible short story. There is something big about the tiny modest life form that gropes at one. It’s all there in that image of the snail, taken in early February: connection, helplessness, loss, conflict, communication, isolation and loneliness. In the snail’s case nothing bad has happened – yet.
Beauty in small, good things. The simple daily routine. Waking up pre dawn to do the work of life. The Baker and the Snail.
Corona has isolated me and yet technology makes me feel more part of the collective than before. Nature is returning. The birds are flying and the ants are building a city beneath our driveway. The draft for book III of the Limbo trilogy is being brought to completion. I imagine that snail turning back often as it wonders if it has missed something important, a succulent green leaf or a shy fellow snail… Snails are known to suffer stress from loneliness.
Eventually the mucus footprints will tell a story, however many times they double back. There will be a beginning, a middle and an end. A good story has its own logic. It’s a strange thing when one looks at it – how the imagination blooms in isolation. It seems perfectly understandable to me right now why Emily Dickinson simplified her life so that she might live within the possibility of the imagination or why Mark Twain in his garden study instructed his family to blow a horn if they needed him.
The horn idea appeals to me. The full extent of the ‘after’ stage is not yet known.
PS. This is another little snail in another image.