I’m First There

I cycle along the cycle paths surrounding town, houses one side, fields the other. Each contradicts the other for a few miles – fast cars towards me on my left and pedestrians on my right. In a year or two the fields I have known will soon be a thousand new houses. I take a sharp left and head for Radley Lake (a pseudonym for what was once the gravel pit feeding the insatiable appetite of making concrete), a detour I always take that adds two miles just so I can stop to let wildlife route my day’s start. Some say I’m ‘lucky‘. I don’t believe that silly abstractions like this are helpful. Better to know why you do this and that rather than guess your way through life and just hope this thing called ‘luck‘ happens for you. Mostly, I let this pass dismissively. Life has paths and paths diverge into choices. We take paths and then live with decisions made, be they good, bad or indifferent. I do believe we make good and bad choices and that good choices can harm us and bad ones can turn out to be the best thing for us. I also understand that bad choices often determine our character for later better decision-making. Was I unlucky in becoming diabetic? Not at all. No way. I think it may have saved me from eating just about anything I wanted and made me make better choices about food and exercise. My diabetes so far has not stopped me from achieving any of my objectives. In fact, the difference has only improved my life.

The lake slowly flashes intermittently as blue, glass-like shards between the stems of trees. I slow now to glimpse the different geese, the terns and cormorants and places where the waterfowl gather with the coots and moorhens in that incessant search for food. The lake gathers its following along known paths of dog walkers who since COVID have rapidly increased to take over. An untrained dog is an untrained owner. Both seem unhappy and discontented in frustrating one another. Eventually, I’m able to side-track across rougher land through a barriered area of briars, nettles and dogwood roses. The barbs create non-peopled places and it’s here that wilder life thrives as best it can. Eventually, I take a place of shared occupation that draws wild things and I breathe in the freshness of freedom. My country lanes and sodden cycle paths gradually narrowed to just a bike’s width. I settle just beyond the nettles where no one knows and no one goes. As I dwell on entering I wait and listen first, always stopping to watch in a quiet place. The worst ever times for me are if or when I disturb what is already occupying. Best to wait until they are done and then move in. The pond I find great life in sits beyond public places and I go there on days when I feel crowded. It’s just a few yards beyond the big lake where I see more pleasing things and I sit cushioned on a sphagnum moss bank a few feet from the water’s edge. A plastic bag keeps me dry. until I leave.

From the reeds, buntings give themselves away by a light rustle causing the top tips to sway the seedheads while down below those same reeds part to the bills of nine or ten new hatchings that just left the nest in convoy over the last 24 hours. Other than this, I’m alone. I’m stilled in the unsilence of nature’s enveloping as if cut away from one life and repositioned in another. I feel the lostness I want in the something bigger than myself. This element of being silenced by nature is the point at which my work so often begins to be redefined and I write down things, draw my thoughts, record and listen the more to that which lives far beyond my control to lay myself open to an influence I rely on to clear my mind. Here, no one punctures the sphere I possessively take as loaned to me for a while. There is no cackle of false laughter but the undulating flight of a green woodpecker crosses from one side of the woodland to another quickly followed by the iridescent blue of the usual kingfisher. I sit still and without eye movement, as he lands on the thinnest twig near to me. The willow warbler gives off a shrill song beyond the reeds and I listen to the music. Now I work in melody without internet and computer but with pens and pencils and paper. Before I leave for the workshop again I say thank you for this unlucky thing that happened because I took a path of choice.

My pencil caught many movements in quick swipes and strokes where the lines formed frames and arches joined one stile to another at the pencil’s tip. Those arches captured the initial idea of a new and unseen desk made to fit corners and to take up the more awkward space we seldom use well. I feel carried on a wave as my mind decides on frames yet again. Woodworking in furniture almost always comprises frames of one sort or another, together with panels that top them or fill them. Frames almost always rely on the single joint of mortise and tenon. Panels come from narrower boards edge-glued to gain width and stability. Panels are tabletops, sides and tops to boxes of every size and then too inserts fitted into grooves and rabbets of different kinds. I like the directness and power of frames: such capable solutions to expand distance in widths and heights.

In isolation, more actions come and so too more words to texture untouched pages. The heron swerves on hooded wings and settles remarkably to lock its legs and both feet in stiff, immoveable stillness; he barely moves yet his eye searches the depths and distances from both sides of his head at once. He must eat and eat soon; he has no choice in this. His wings spread, shielding the water’s shiny surface from the sun’s reflecting to see deeply into the water clearly. There is pure economy to all he does. I’m reminded of my working and my own economy of motion. Nothing to spare, legs locked to lay out the joint lines for knifewalls – the knife severing across the grain creating the waste side so that the wanted becomes crystal clear according to the knifewall, the meeting lines of the joints.

The warblers sing less now and the season will shortly close off for the migrants. Shortly they’ll take off for southern Africa, a 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) flight. The silence will be deafening for six months but I can hear recordings my brain makes to fill the gap until they return next spring. I still have the robin and the blackbird, the dunnock and one or two others of our local songsters, through winter.

I pass through the commercial buildings and still, there is more wildlife. The surreptitious fox, squirrels, muntjac and all kinds of birds which one by one give up their space before the day’s commerce begins with its white-van deliveries.

Opening the workshop door I see a work started and waiting for me. The tools wait too. A mixture of planes are where I left them two days ago along with the few shavings that missed the dustpan. I reengage with the pieces, take off the clamps left tight and still locked onto the frames. I never even try to describe these moments. they’re private somehow. Less matter of fact than people realise. The joints stay shoulder-tight as I lift my plane to level the final surfaces adjoining one another. It’s just me and my work. My eyes scan to preface where I will go next with it. Monday’s are special. Vibrant. Happy!


  1. Many years ago, a young co-worker commented that he hated Mondays, but looked forward to Fridays. An older co-worker (who was younger than I am now) said he much preferred Mondays to Fridays. When asked why he said “Because I’ll be younger on Monday than I will be on Friday”. Attitude can make all the difference.

    1. Kerry, spot on. I too was known for loving Mondays, my stock reason was that I had survived yet another weekend and had the whole week ahead of me to be creative in. My days are as pages upon which I write…

      1. “My days are as pages upon which I write…” That is a wonderful thought, Martyn, and beautifully expressed. Reading your message is a happy way for me to start the day.

  2. Paul, beautifully written. I’m known as ‘lucky’ too; laughable, if not so ludicrous. We write our own stories, and yours are always helpful and inspiring. Thank you.

  3. One of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of prose I ever remember to have read. How astonishing.

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