What you can see if you climb into the hackney canal
Despite it’s algae infested gloom the Hackney canal is a rich vein of life – swans, ducks, birds and fish of all sorts live along here. Joggers frequent it too.
You can tell I’m a Londoner because I don’t know the names of any of these species – and nor do I know the names of the joggers – but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the gentle pulse of anonymous life. Every time I come here for a run I see the same two swans fighting off invaders (and that includes dogs on the shore) and I watch the fish tracing curves in the murk beside me.
But a while back I saw something that bought this sense of life and my stride to an abrupt stop: a baby fox was floating face down the cold water.
It’s body and hair was well preserved but its head and tail were pointed down underwater as if it was inspecting the bottom. It was looped over, a parody of its own sadness.
How did it get there? Was it thrown in? Did it slip? It was so small….
I wanted to photograph it. There was something tender about the way it was …. totally still. It was captured as if in mid-jump – the dark green water was developing its own photographic image, the cold water freezing its own moment.
While I was pondering how to get the best shot a woman walked passed me.
‘It came from Angel’ she said
‘The fox, it came from Angel. It floated all the way from Angel in Islington and now it’s here.’
It came from Angel.
I had gone from wanting to get the image to having to get the image. I rushed off, bought a complete underwater kit for my both my camera body and my own body: a glorified plastic bag for the Canon with a glass panel against which to prop the lens and boots that went up to my chin (virtually), which, when you are 6’4″ is saying something. I came back later with Ann, climbed into the canal, and while she valiantly held a flashgun on the end of a long pole over the water, I stood on the slimy canal floor, water up to my chest like some seedy murder investigator and froze my arms taking shot after shot until my hands became too numb to press the shutter.
All my images failed – except this one.
I’ve never used that underwater equipment again. This single shot cost me £500 but I think its the best shot I ever took.
I think it captures something about the cross-over between life and death. I can’t help thinking that the reflection of the fox’s body in the water looks like wings on its back lifting it upwards but I also see it in mid-jump about to be pulled downwards to the murky floor. Beauty in death, fragility in life.
I went back three days later and found the fox had floated some way further on but was now losing its fur and its skin was discolouring. I owed it a better ending that this. I fished it out with a long pole and laid it amongst the leaves out of sight. It’s moment of beauty and fragility had gone and now it was more a thing than a being.
I tell you this story for a simple reason: this morning I woke up to a beautiful girlfriend, a beautiful house, some beautiful sunshine and I felt like shit. The gloom inside had turned in on itself while I slept and when I opened my eyes little of the light came in. I’m not proud of this, there are plenty of people worse off than me in this life, I have so much to be pleased about, but that’s just the way it is. Things don’t always add up. I had sunk to the bottom of my own murky canal.
I got up, walked through the park with the dogs and watched the birds, the fish, the swans – they were silent. What can I do to help you anyway, I thought? This whole project to help animals is a waste of time. What can I do? I have no real skills, I have a heart that switches off when I get down. Go back to earning some money Martin…
And then I came to a bench near where I had buried the fox and sat down with the sun on the back of my head. I watched the shadows moving on the floor as the wind made patterns of the leaves. For a brief moment the wind stopped and a small heart-shape formed on the floor.
‘Oh fuck off with your crap symbols’ I said to the universe and to no-one in particular. God was playing with photoshop.
I got up and went to where the fox was buried and saw a tiny bit of its skull and was immediately reminded of this image.
There and then I was lifted back to the surface as if tiny shadowy wings were strapped to my back. That is why this image is so important to me. It is a memento of life’s transience. This animal played once, it was young. Things pass, Martin, things are too precious to let go. Sometimes, despite the murkiness of life, we see things clearly:
play whilst you can, live while you can, love while you can.
I walked back home with a faster stride.
I may be swimming through cold waters on this year long journey to help, I thought, and hell, I may be a bad swimmer, but by god will I stay afloat. I will continnue to follow my heart, however quiet it’s murmur becomes, and I will continue to do whatever I can, in my own small way, to help animals.