Tuesday, 24 April 2012

From a Woodfeller's Journal

I was in the woods, figuring out a way to cut through the trunk of a half fallen tree, to take home and saw into logs for the fire.

The tree was tangled up in other upright trees. The wood had been densely planted, probably several decades ago. Mainly pine, there are a few birch and larch trees. The one I was after was a larch – the twigs break off cleanly and the wood burns well. It smells of resin and the bark is a woven terracotta colour, a raised, chopped patchwork of greys and reddish-browns, with flickers of green threads, bunched and broken, like errors, dropped stitches, lumpy flaws in the spruce and varnished texture. Morning light flickers through the tree trunks. On cloudy days I need all my courage to walk through this wood. The trees huddle so closely together that there is only darkness ahead, no light at all. There is daylight if I look left, to the edge of the wood but the sense of disquiet increases as one moves forward, into its depths.

I don't go very far, I don't need to, before I come across a tree graveyard, with fallen trunks lying across each other in a murky tangle. But even before this area is reached, there is almost always some slanting trunks, caught up in the spiky, adhesive upper branches of the spruce trees. After each storm or high wind, a few more trees tip and lean across the others, for their roots don't go deep into the soil, which is carpeted with dusty brown pine needles, choking any green growth. 

Apart from a few crow caws and the distant twitter of finches and blackbirds carried from more hospitable trees in people's gardens, it is a silent wood. A decaying wood. This, and the impenetrable darkness ahead – not somewhere I have ever ventured – coats the nerves with unease, makes one alert to the slightest sound, the trip-wire to danger. But almost the only sounds, when a wind is blowing, are the eerie creaks of a leaning tree, its branches pushing against other tree branches in a swaying irregular percussion.

But the other day, with the sun scissoring stripes of light across the floor of needles, and onto one side of the trunks, it looked painted with something hopeful, an ethereal if wistful beauty.

eucalyptus patterns
larch circles

Intermittent tree-fellers have formed an almost-path up to the beginning of the litter of prone tree limbs, so it feels almost kindly, there is this thread of connection and purpose, even if utilitarian. But it is not entirely that, not for me anyway. I'm glad of the spruces for their dense, already dried out wood, even if their short branches and twigs latch onto your clothes and fingers, onto other trees, and cling to the trunk when you try to break them off. 

But the larches are the kings and queens of trees, their sharp-scented, resinous pinkish-red rings on the sawn wood, underneath the crisp coating of bark, like so many lichen-starred roof tiles. When one of these lean heavily across their neighbours, I feel as I imagine hunters feel, when they spot the quarry of their dreams. There is always some sadness qualifying the sense of exultation, that the tree has given up its life – and there is gratitude for its gift, and admiration of its bark-studded beauty, and its clean sharp scent.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Holy City of Kairouan

Our first stop was at the Tourist Office of Kairouan, the first capital of Tunisia. On the ground floor you purchased – for one dinar – a permit to take photographs anywhere in this town, sizzling with attractions. Under the overcast sky this was not immediately obvious although we were encouraged to go up to the top floor to see the panoramic view, which revealed little detail as the land here is very flat.

On the way up, on the first floor, a man hurled himself at me, daubed something from a small phial on my wrist and rattled off – keksjasminchai keksjasminchai. I did not know if this wrist dampening was an obligatory cleansing as part of our welcome to this ancient and holy city - or a sales pitch. The assault was renewed with even more fervour on the way down from the top floor and the panorama of grey skies, brown sandy coloured low buildings and a wild wind. I went into the small shop, following our guide and some others from our party. The keks it turned out, were complimentary date filled delicacies of the region, and very tasty. After that I joined our guide and a couple of others at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee which was sweet and strong. The sales pitch, for all its initially unnerving lack of clarity, had worked, the free samples being a sufficient enticement. And some people did purchase jasmine and boxes of the date filled 'keks'.

We then head for the shrine and mausoleum of Abou Zama Al-Bataoui, also known as Sidi Sahib, a companion of the Prophet who died in 654 AD. The Mausoleum was built in 15/1600s AD and people believe that it has healing powers, and will grant wishes. For example, our guide says, students come here who wish to pass their exams, and women come, who wish to have children. Two courtyards lead off the arched entrance and the walls beyond the archways are covered in tender mosaic patterns, their floral designs ranging out from a core of colour, a seed pearl of gold or orange, blue or green designs unfolding in waves of petals, leaves, folded into each other crowded round their core. Mandala shapes embrace the worlds, the seasons, the directions...

Although we are not allowed beyond the inner courtyard, into the mausoleum itself, the guardian kindly took my camera and photographed the actual tomb of Sidi Sahib.

Men hawking cheap beads and chains wear billowing brown hooded capes to protect them against wind and rain. They thrust Hands of Fatima on chains, in front of our eyes. The wind catches their capes which swell out around them, turning the men into flitting hooded falcons, with their glinting chains darting like claws from their billowing brown feathers and landing on bags or arms or thrust into hands. This worked well with me and no doubt with others too. Once something is actually on my person I cannot let it fall or ignore it. It becomes my responsibility and I end up buying two hands of Fatima, which are supposed to bring good luck and good fortune. Fatima was the sister of the Prophet.

Our next stop is the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the 4th most sacred site in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It attracts pilgrims from east and west, especially those who through poverty or ill health cannot make the long journey to Mecca. But as the rain increases, there are no pilgrims here today in the vast and empty courtyard. The marble pillars of the archways are reflected in the wet flagstones, a second set of ragged lines, slightly uneven, bent and skewed in places, but doubling the harmony like a set of sympathetic strings, flinging archways into a further echo of the sky of divine resonance, doubling the voices in a choir of praise.

The massive carved doors are of dark olive wood. We could look inside at the red carpets heaped on the floor as if abandoned by some thirsty trader, who has hastened to the chaikhan to drink a glass of chai subtly flavoured with mint, to wrap his fingers round the warm glass and gossip with his friends. The piled carpets shiver slightly, rearrange themselves, settle into position, straight as the line of light on water, that cossets the sea surface, tripping over it in its race to the sun. Lamps hang from the mosque roof, dangling on extended chains, giving off a soft light that seems to emphasise the immensity of space rather than illuminate it. All this inner opulence, with the ranks of glowing lamps, and outside, the simplicity, almost austerity, of the huge marble courtyard, wet, gleaming and empty.