Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Wolfgang Buttress

Wolfgang Buttress | 15th December 2020

It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known in these parts as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Wolfgang Buttress.

Murmuration: from Latin murmurāre- to murmur, make a gentle sound or to surge. 

A large group of birds, usually starlings, that all fly together and change direction together, or the act of birds doing this. 

Italian scientists have likened this phenomenon to be closer to physics than biology. A phase transition. Matter on the edge of dissolving and transforming. Like liquid to gas, snow to avalanche. Something elemental and visceral. Solid and ethereal. Each bird aware of only the nearest 7 to itself. 

Netherfield Lagoon, Nottingham, hides itself behind an out-of-town retail park and an industrial estate. Sited on old slurry and gravel pits made by man, now being reclaimed by nature. The journey felt like a secret, a promise, a murmur: a pre rave anticipation — the excitement of people coming together.  

Under an orange ache of a late November sky we stood waiting on sodden earth by the reeds. We waited for the dusk. 

And then, a small grey plume far to our left

A mist-like haze drifted in from the right. 

The whip of air out in front and soon black all around.

Like dust against the sun, a ghost inverting in on itself, stretching, twisting, morphing. Elusive but there. Knowable but not understood. The fascination of watching singular strokes shapeshifting into ever ambiguous forms. 

A simple and complex expression of something transient, enigmatic, implied and extraordinary. All that is solid melts into air. Materialising, dematerialising, nothing to something. And on and on, furl on unfurl, these shapes moved in and out of each other, never touching, never colliding — graceful and amorphous. Above you, around you, the sound within you, syncopated and phased.

Then a stillness, a tension. The rippling mass too far away for our ears to hear.  An implied energy, the air and anticipation still electric. 

The waning light dimmed, life pulsed and flowed closer as the night started to fall. The flickering last embers of dark lights, a return, a last giant surge and the black funnel was sucked back into the reeds. A murmur like no other. Hidden into our unknown. The sound and spectacle transformed everything — and then silence.

A delayed euphoria. People instinctively smiled at each other and then clapped for something maybe beyond but part of us. For a moment, this ulcer of a year was in retreat and this was its highlight. No words, no pain, no regret, no sadness, no boredom, no frustration. A simple and complex expression of something transient, enigmatic, implied and extraordinary. It felt good to feel alive and humbled. 

I read David Holmes’ Andrew Weatherall obituary yesterday. Quoting Jim Dickinson, he wrote about a recent New Year’s wish from his late friend, which somehow feels so apt. 

Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow.