Serpents and cities

Posted on September 19, 2011


I step out of the cottage onto the stoop.  The front garden, enclosed by a low stone wall, is flooded.  When I look out beyond the garden, I see there is water as far as the eye can see.  A golden afternoon light reflects everywhere.  I hunch down on the stoop, balancing on my haunches.  Here, the water is shallow and clear.  I can see straight through to the garden below.  Miniature columns and pyramids grow up from the garden floor, each in a different hue.  Tiny bobbles and growths adorn each coral as if an entire city exists here.  It is beautiful: a magic garden with such intensity it is hard to take it in in one sweep. It is then I see the great eye.  A single, knowing gaze from beneath the surface.  It is ringed by the most extraordinary scaled eyelid,and it belongs to the giant head of a serpent.  His body is coiled amongst the garden and I can see clearly its girth, rippling with muscle.  His colour is so vibrant it is only matched by the miniature city in which he is lying.

I stand up and take my first step: out along the stepping stones – through the garden gate, following the stones as far as they will go.  I cannot see under the water here – the afternoon light has smeared a thick shimmering layer  of gilt across its surface.  How deep is it here?  What is below?  I don’t know the answer to either of these questions but I know I must go on.  I can see that even the flagstones disappear and I must trust that I will find solid ground through the gilt mirage.  I leave my garden and my serpent knowing that I continue to draw strength from these strange imaginary bodies as I head into the unknown.

What lies below the surface beyond the garden?  For each of us this is a challenging question.  How can we possibly know what is beyond the comforting boundary of our own lives and ways of delineating the world?  When we stare out across the water, we cannot penetrate its depths unless we are in it, standing over it, about to plunge in, or isolated by it.  If we cannot see anything on the horizon, does this mean there is nothing waiting there, or simply that we have not gone far enough?

Does the comfort of our own worlds, our own cities need to be left behind in order for us to appreciate their magnificence and their flaws?  I think about my recent return to London from holiday.  We flew in late and soon found ourselves traversing this giant, great city in the dead of night.  As the cab crossed from west to east, we passed street after street of boarded up, shuttered down, filthy, gritty urbanness.  No windows were on display, only the dirty metal shutters in a night-long blink.  A collective rebuff to the night watcher.  The streets are rubbish-strewn and abandoned.This is scary territory.  A no-man’s land that emerges as soon as trading hours are over.  Is this what we want from our cities? Is the only exchange we can rely upon one of mutual mistrust once the agreed terms of commerce are concluded?

I hope that we can find another way of holding on to the magic of the city – our own personal magic while being generous enough to appreciate the magic of others.