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Authors: Tim Robinson

My Time in Space

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My Time in Space

TIM ROBINSON

THE LILLIPUT PRESS
DUBLIN
MY TIME IN SPACE
BIRDLIFE

(AND A PREFACE)

It’s the wise thrush that knows its own song …

While my mother-to-be was lying in wait for me, a thrush sang unceasingly outside her hospital window, day after day. She told me this when I was grown up and her mind was rambling back through the past, and I have interiorized it as a seminal event, the second, to be precise, of my life. Such parental tales of one’s own beginnings, which one can no longer distinguish from memories, acquire the tremendum of legend, of revealed religion. The totem animal’s song enters the bloodstream via the umbilical cord; later the blood will answer to a call from outside. When I was about eleven, as near as I can guess, my mother told me that since I could fly I should go and live with the birds. I remember standing at the back door, full of the pathos of leaving home, looking at sparrows in a hawthorn tree.

That was a dream, but the idea that I could fly had seeped into my waking life. I used to practise levitation, lying face down and concentrating with such hypnotic intensity that I persuaded myself I was floating an inch or two off the floor. My memories of
having
drifted like a toy balloon around the ceiling of my bedroom, and of having glided down the long sloping field below the school, were convincingly vivid, but a ballast of scepticism kept me from telling anyone of them. Rapturous cloud-explorations, snipelike towerings, angelic freefalls, reoccurred for many years thereafter and are among my most treasured unrealities.

‘Hushaby baby in the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle does rock’ was not among the mantras of my childhood, but
hearing
it now reminds me of early fantasies of being born in a bird’s nest high among branches swaying in the wind. Perhaps that
balancing
, flexing, world promised a strange security. My father, who knew about such things from his own treeclimbing, bird’s-nesting, boyhood, often told me, as a marvel, how the woodpigeon’s eggs lie safely on a mere half-dozen crossed twigs. As for the moment of terror ‘when the bough breaks’, I had already survived it, for once when I was no bigger than a monkey a branch snapped off under my weight, and I fell rather slowly to earth astride its thick, air-resisting, foliage. I was good in trees, showing off to all who would pause to admire how I could hang by my knees, and daily practising Tarzan-swings from branch to branch of a long-
suffering
tree known as the Coronation Oak in a little park near home. A few years ago, when I visited the deserted villages of the Anasasi Indians built into hollows of a cliff hundreds of feet above the canyon floor of the Mesa Verde, I found myself envying the
children
who had looked down like hawks’ nestlings at the maplike geography of their future hunting grounds. But I am not a
cliff-climber
; the cliff-edge is the controlling emblem of my life, as I hope to explain deeper into this book, and I do not transgress it.

Once, after I had waited many hours for a lift by a road that was evidently little travelled, in Norway, an eagle appeared high
overhead. Two crows from a nearby wood set out to pester it into quitting their patch of sky. Was it really in their territory
according
to bird-law? As they laboured upwards for minute after minute, shrinking to ragged dots almost lost against the pale glare, I began to have a sense of how far up the eagle was. It was only with great effort that the crows reached its level, whereupon it flapped one huge wing at them as if shaking dust off a carpet, and sailed out of range of harassment. Height, then, can only be won with expense of energy; the vertical dimension is not as easily penetrable as the horizontal ones; flight-space is stratified by increasing difficulty; up-draughts, thermals, are winds that help one up invisible hills.

Questions of how the spaces of experience, human and
non-human
, relate to real space, whether they can always be expressed as colorations, tensions, deformations or indexings of it, and whether real space itself is a perpetual creativity beyond
comprehension
in terms of the conceptual spaces of geometry, have always intrigued me, and I am far from answers to such problems. I suspect that the impossibility of my dream-flights does not lie in their effortlessness but in some geometrical incoherence in the space they traverse; dreams can benefit from the logic of
contradictory
foundations, in that anything can obtain in them, if only because their contradictions are not attended to. (The dream
contains
only what is attended to by the dreamer.) But when their spaces are inscribed in real space, they can fall to earth.

I painted a number of works called ‘Falling Bird’ once. This was in Vienna in the mid-sixties; that lugubrious Cold-War city seems in fact to have called forth macabre and surreal expressions of several themes that happily have also surfaced in less phobic periods of my life. Some of these birds looked as if they had been
falling so long they were reduced to desiccated anatomies. What had stopped them in mid-flight was not to be known from the paintings; it might have been a burst of radiation from the Armageddon we half expected daily at that time. Contorted, rigid, they fell through layers of grey vapour, or hung like black
silhouettes
against it as if seen by one in free fall alongside them.
Insensible
or indifferent to all other influences, they were abandoned to gravity. That supreme space-shaper, the commanding force
orthogonal
to all the tentative, laterally spreading, webs of my mapwork, is immanent in much of what I have drawn or written.

A bird’s flight-world is perfused by its song-world, a structure of intensely significant directions, distances, locations and regions, perceived through the influx of sounds made by its congeners and to a lesser extent by other species: warning cries tracking the prowl of a cat, nestlings’ unappeasable demands, sexual
advertisements
, rivalrous bravado. We eavesdrop on this world, which intensifies both space and time for us: the echoing sea-cliff is redoubled by a peregrine falcon’s gaunt clamour; a slothful
summer
afternoon is lulled into still deeper inertia by a woodpigeon’s repetitious lucubrations. Stepping out of a cottage on the Aran Islands very early one spring day I found the slopes of rock and raggletaggle bushes around it being partitioned between half a dozen voluble cock blackbirds. Territoriality, the staking of
exclusive
claims, is the driving force behind much birdsong. What sounds like mere recreation is indeed re-creation: the reinvention or reimposition for another day of a political geography that had lapsed overnight. In fact a number of treaties were being drawn up as robins and wrens and other small birds added their
distinctive
signatures to that morning’s crisp parchment. A
superimposition
of transparent maps, the brouhaha of languages in a
cosmopolitan restaurant, the interweaving of games played by
different
age-groups of children in a school yard, are all inadequate images of the endless interpretability of space.

The various possible relationships between bird territories also remind me of those diagrams in textbooks of logic, in which, for instance, two overlapping circles or similarly simple shapes,
standing
for two sets of elements, divide the page into various parts representing those elements that are members of both sets, of
neither
, of one but not the other, and so on. These Venn diagrams (so called after their inventor) are also useful in the formal logic devised by Boole in the last century: the interior of a shape
represents
a proposition and its exterior the contradictory of that proposition; the overlap of two shapes represents the conjunction of two propositions. Such a structure of abstract argumentation is termed a calculus, from the Latin for a stone as used in reckoning. Just as propositions can be about propositions, so sets can have sets as their members – but these logical systems founder in self-
contradiction
if sets are permitted to be members of themselves or if propositions are allowed to refer to themselves, as Bertrand
Russell
proved. The successive catastrophes provoked in logic by Russell, Gödel and Turing suggest that thought is not a matter of piling up stones, for that gives no play for paradox. Some such train of associations, together with my abiding fascination with theories that lie just beyond my comprehension and like birdsong seem always about to crystallize into sense, motivated a deranged harangue I wrote a few years before that dawn chorus in Aran; it purports to be a lecture delivered by a man in a tree to an
audience
also perched in trees, in the University of the Woods:

Is thought a calculus? A calculus a stone? Thrown at a bird, let fall to sound a well, used in a wall against a wind? Admit the wind! To fence a field? Consider the territorially of knowledge: the don defines a field (the territoriality of birds, we’ll say), assumes a stance (his axiom: each bird sings only ‘I am here!’), deploys his arms (poor scarecrow, the birds are flown already), and lets his field define himself. ‘I am my place!’ he sings, and produces proofs: ‘The song’s assurance dwindles with distance from the perch; each bird and its neighbour meet in equivocation and make their mutual boundary the locus of equal unconviction. Thus the land is parcelled out by blackbirds, thus by robins, thus by thrushes, in mutually invisible systems of exclusions …’ But Doctor Intelligence Discarnate views all from above, sees what is not to be seen (the crow’s border
crossing
the wren’s domain, linnetdom within chaffinchshire), discovers his hard calculus to hand and with it guards his empty coverts. Logic, not Song, is ritual attack! (Song is the riddle that turns upon itself.) If you are your thesis, best perfect its defences, claim complete originality, disguise guilty inclusions, defend your bounds against encroachment. For above all else you fear encirclement, the hell of being understood, analysed, part refuted, part absorbed and reinterpreted within a greater whole in which a fragmentary occluded you lives on, forced to chime its thinking with another’s. Are you the defect in your objectivity, the vulnerable centre? Should you exclude yourself, renounce your place in the winged flux, become impenetrable, a stone, at rest in the safety of complete disjunction from your kind?

Turn, Professor! Seek the glimmerings of sense in the thickets of your theory. There is a pool in which you figure, ringed by fleeting diagrams of your inconsequential algebras. This structure of fears you think of as
yourself
reflects you well – and so the affronted incalculable outwits you!
Self-description
is the cuckoo’s egg of contradiction among your sterile clutch of theorems – and an unexpected proof of kinship with the birds! From a
contradiction
all things follow; it is the all-devouring foster-child that bursts apart your systems and teaches you to fly. Follow its derisive voice, poor pipit, beyond the circles of your Boolean mind! Become insatiate of
possibilities
, watch Venn’s amoebae spiral out in unbelievable evolutions:
multimen
with flocks of voices, wind-tossed clouds of faculties and appetites juggled by perspective into momentary beings, infinities of selves lovingly nested one within another …

So, crazed by mad analogies of sanities yet to be invented, the sad
professor
mounts St Francis’s pulpit, humbly resolved to speak only as a bird speaks, for the pleasure of hearing a like voice return. And when the sun sets in his mind, as now, his thought flies inwards to its own dark woods, leaving a silence where it sang.

Rereading, I see an element of self-caricature. Perhaps the present book needs some apologetic preface; let this be it. I have written about many matters I do not understand (but if I restricted myself to what I do understand I would be wordless). Sometimes I have followed the sounds of words, trusting them (as a writer does; it is the difference between a writer and an intellectual) to lead me into sense. But I do believe that all things are in principle
comprehensible
– except two: the existence of the universe, and one’s own existence. These are mysteries, in the sense that one cannot even frame a question about them. About the universe, ‘Why?’ just directs us back into the web of interconnections constituting it; about oneself, ‘Why here? Why now?’ is empty, as asked by an embodied here-and-now. Questions of how consciousness arises in nature, and how and what one consciousness can know of others, are proper, if intractable; humanity has been grinding away at them for thousands of years and has sharpened them, at least. But a
mystery
is a questionmark in search of a question; it is unappeasable.
The essays in this book hover, fascinated, about the self-mystery, and feel the wind of the universal mystery. They are all on themes, to do with space, that have outcropped often enough in my life – as a student of nature, of geometry, as artist, cartographer,
topographical
writer, environmentalist, hitchhiker, home-lover and cosmology-fan – to give it some continuity, at least in
retrospective
reconstruction. But they do not add up to an autobiography, a project that would not interest me; so far as my life-story goes, these are walks on the bank of a river of untold tales.

BOOK: My Time in Space
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