Catching the wind

Mucknell Abbey, Worcestershire, 10 March 2011

The anticyclonic frost and cold of the beginning of March has become cyclonic bluster and low cloud. The force 5-ish sou’westerlies are again forming ripples on the pond, bending the wavelets around the small island and recombining them in interference patterns. I take advantage of the winds, and reach for my kite.

Kite flying is more than a children’s activity; for centuries kite fighting has been a sometimes deadly tradition in Pakistan and other countries, and now kite surfing has become a popular beach sport. For me, though, its genius is its ability to get children of all ages outside. At the end of the first “Mary Poppins” film, Mr Banks sets a sterling example when he realises that his family is more important than his job, mends his son Michael’s kite, and takes the family on a kite-flying outing. In “Mary Poppins Returns”, so does the kite, this time flown by Michael’s son.

Hmmm… Mr Banks, his son, and his son’s son. Let’s have a brief excursus and think about gender stereotyping and discrimination. When my brother and I were smaller, my Dad was the one to be in charge of the big kite we tried to fly on Wittenham Clumps and Shotover. Later, my brother had a kite. He hardly let me fly it. I wanted a kite. I read books about how to make kites. Now I am all growed up, I have a stunt kite. I bought it in my mid-20s when I was living in Cambridge and flew it on Stourbridge Common. I have flown it on White Horse Hill, on the beach at Big Sand near Gairloch, in Exeter’s Ludwell Valley Park. I have introduced girls of all ages to kite flying, and a few boys as well.

Now at Mucknell Abbey, I start with the usual aerobatics: tight 360° spins until the friction of the twisted strings makes control difficult; skimming the ground without crashing; tracing out a square, as neatly as I can make it; S’s and figures of eight; flying as close to the wind as possible (I estimate about 30° either side of the wind direction); bouncing it off the ground and recovering (this is not, repeat not, the same as crashing).

Then I spend some time letting the kite fly. I gaze up, observing it as a tell-tale of the changing wind, backing and veering in direction, or blowing harder and lifting the kite to almost overhead, or softer so it starts to fall out of the sky.

After a while I stop watching it, and instead feel it through the strings and my hands. I receive an even clearer sense of the gradual strengthening and fading of the wind, the insistent tug of a gust, and especially the turbulence, the sudden juddering pull-pull-pull followed by relaxation. I gain a new respect for the kestrel’s ability to hover over a single spot and keep its head absolutely still.

Peter Korn writes about a similar attentiveness in “Why We Make Things and Why it Matters”:

Many years ago, when I was shopping for a boat, one of my major criteria was that she steer with a tiller rather than a wheel. Grasping a tiller transmits the action of the rudder directly to the hand, whereas a wheel is more indirect, being connected to the rudder via pulleys. Like most sloops, the one I found has a weather helm under sail, which means she will turn her bow into the wind when left to her own devices. Grasping the tiller, my hand knows just how much countering force to exert on the rudder to keep her on course at any given moment. This in turn, tells me (in concert with my other senses) how well the mainsail and jib are balanced, how strong the wind is, and how close to the wind I am sailing. The boat becomes a live thing in my hand, but more than that, it is as if my senses extend throughout the boat – until water, wind, and sky are all there is.

A kite is both simpler and more than a live thing in my hands. I become the kestrel, I soar on eagles’ wings, I become the wind itself. Earthly matters fall away, and my soul dances with the breeze as it ‘bloweth where it listeth’.

After about half an hour, the wind gets up further, and the kite pulls hard. Dance becomes play again: more aerobatics, and one final spectacular vertical nosedive and splashdown.