Between two frames

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Last night before bed, I read John Berger’s essay “Opening a Gate” in Why Look at Animals? This section struck me, perhaps because it was so similar to what I was trying to get at when wrote about the idea of the beyond-world. I like the idea of multiple beyond-worlds, not destined for us that we occasionally catch glimpses of, perhaps out of the corner of our eye, perhaps head on.

When I wrote about the beyond-world, I mentioned Shoal Creek in Austin. It’s right in the middle of the city. There is a sidewalk that runs along it. Once evening, I was walking on that sidewalk and came upon an owl sitting on a branch. It was directly in front of me and staring right at me. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it for a moment. Perhaps longer than a mere moment, it’s hard to say. The world around me and the bird seemed to shift: colors changed and there was an electricity in the air. It may simply have been that the sun was going down. In fact, whenever I see the word “gloaming” that moment comes back to me. It alone captures the sudden shift of colors and texture that came so suddenly and just as suddenly disappeared.

The other thing that Berger’s description of a different perception found between two frames reminded me of was a lot of the writing of Haruki Murakami. He describes this as combining objective language and personal language. Murakami’s personal language feels like a beyond-world, something seen by—perhaps destined for—one person only. It’s the interplay between the world everyone agrees on and one individual’s beyond-world that I enjoy so much about Murakami’s writing.

In some some sense, this feels like what much fiction writing and some non-fiction writing, like the writing of Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Perhaps this is only true of the authors I love—such as Calvino, Borges, Carter and García Márquez—who take their queue as much from folktale and mythology as they do from science and reason. I return again and again to the writers who are able to communicate the internal life of a character or themselves.

The beyond-world

Baker became, during those years of chase, an explorer of what he called the ‘beyond-world’: the wild world of birds and small creatures that existed in hedgerows, in woodlands, in the air, and out on the coastal borderlands of the mudflats and saltmarshes. This ‘beyond-world’ was always occurring, mingling with our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors, rarely more than a turn of the head or a turn in the road away. Most people were entirely blind to this world, but Baker saw it wherever he looked. In his eyes, the Essex landscape—never more than 150 feet above sea-level, only fifty miles from London, heavily farmed—was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic.

Robert MacFarlane, writing in The Wild Places (p. 279), about John Baker’s idea of the ‘beyond-world.’ Baker spent an entire winter tracking peregrine falcons in Essex. Essex, for those of you who don’t live in the UK, is one of the least wild places I know of, aside from a city.

The idea of the ‘beyond-world’ immediately struck me. I love the idea of looking just beyond what is immediately before you to see something else: a plant growing up through a crack in the sidewalk made by the root of a nearby tree, a ruin giving way to nature in the middle of a giant metropolis or an insect you’ve never seen before just outside your door.

In the idea of the ‘beyond-world’ there is something of Rebecca Solnit’s grandmother sources, of listening beyond the single story to the endless stories unfolding around us.

When I lived in Austin, I twice had the experience of seeing the world before me fall away and reveal something else. I was once walking on 12th Street towards the ACC campus, when I reached the top of a hill. At the bottom of this hill was Shoal Creek. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. Suddenly, I could imagine the entire area covered in trees with just a dirt track winding its way down to the creek. It stopped me in my tracks and lasted only a moment before I went on my way, back in a city on my way to school.

The second encounter with a ‘beyond-world’ was a very different kind of imaginative rewilding. I was walking down 6th Street, when I looked at the buildings around me, just past the neon signs for clubs and bars. In that moment, 6th Street revealed its origins as a pioneer street, something from the Wild West. The architecture was still there, just barely covered over.

I now live in Hampshire, but work in London. London often has this effect on me, often when I’m crossing them Thames at night. There is a flood of histories, but also the strange, simple realization than I’m in London. That I’m living across the world from my home and that I know London better than anyplace I’ve ever lived.

Hampshire is not unlike Essex in some respects. It’s not terribly wild, at least not on our end of Hampshire. We live in a village surrounded by farmland, but we don’t have to go far to explore. My morning run takes me through two different woods and a holloway. On the weekends, we’ll often take an Ordnance Survey map and find a place we don’t know to go explore. These aren’t wild places. They are for the most part ancient rights-of-way, marked on the map in broken green lines. We’re often on these paths alone, and are surprised to come across other people. It gives us time to look at the world, to find a plant or insect we’ve never seen before, to discover interesting stones that may reveal something about the underlying geology or to find scattered hints of other people who have passed this way before.

I believe these mini-adventures are a way of making time to see the ‘beyond-world’ and make us all better at seeing it at times when we might otherwise rush past it.