When the Catholic liturgy describes one particular tree – perhaps it needs an upper-case T – it is notable that it is described in very positive terms: fidelis, nobilis, dulce lignum. Faithful, noble, a sweet wood. In the great C6th hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, the cross, Roman instrument of shameful execution, is turned into something of beauty. The shame of imperial Rome, the curse of Deuteronomy, the paradox of Pauline theology are seen in the context of the good thing these pieces of wood have done. The poem Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis Sing, tongue about the the battle, of the glorious struggle places this tree sola digna, the only worthy one, uncomfortably side by side the images of torture. Far enough in time from the grim reality of the cross, Venantius brilliantly uses the repeated dulcis – sweet – to apply to what later writers call the Instruments of the Passion and to the body of Jesus: sweet iron, sweet wood, a sweet burden. The poet is writing in praise of this particular wood as part of the cult of the Holy Cross: crudely put, we might see this as an advert for the cross whose veneration he is proposing.
When Psalm 95 (or 96 in some versions) suggests a primacy for the God presented in the books of the Faiths of the Book, it bursts its banks towards the end, and the poet pictures a world where the heavens and the earth, the field and the woods, are alive with joy. It is part of that same thread of nature poetry that runs through these songs, perhaps too often missed because of the overlying themes of later exegesis. I have discussed this with another psalm here. I sometimes wonder whether we miss a big idea when ignore these great Biblical bursts of exuberant delight in the natural world, although other poets do well with the vision of the warmer days (often a little later than early April) and the trees in blossom, from Sumer is i-cumen in through to the pastoral lute songs and madrigals of the C16th. Time spent cooped up when blood is nipp’d is more or less over: a time to be liberated from close supervision, from chores and obligations is here. I look up from my typing just now at the (of course, wisely still bare) ash tree in the garden and am reminded of Peter Fiennes’s comment:
The ash is one of nature’s friendliest trees – its Latin name Fraxinus excelsior is a shout of joy and wonder.
P Fiennes “A river runs through it” in Oak and Ash and Thorn
A chill, bright day in Shotover on Easter Monday echoed that and shout – and if the ash is not yet up to budburst, many of the other trees of the wood are awake and rejoicing. Where I had been sitting on my birthday in February is beginning to dapple with light coming through honeysuckle and hazel; cherry and blackthorn are shining with new blossom. The sky is a clear blue. April, chill but bright, is here.
Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.
With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .
Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.
We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.
But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”
…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.
Canticle of the Creatures
The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.
Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space betweenthem, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.
So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.
I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…
The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart
And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.
First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?
Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.
There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?
By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.
The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.
So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?
The very sky no longer high
Comes down within the reach of all.
John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)
So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?
Jim Crumley again:
If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…
An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.
A foot stamps.
You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.
The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus
Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:
She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.
Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us.
Mary Oliver: Snow Geese
I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.
It might be that at some point I write about worms as mythic beasts, maybe dragons, or the pull of the Lambton legend, or its folkloric influences, or (as I have before) about Mayne’s retelling. This is not that post; this is a brief reflection on worms on my allotment.
Thanks to a colleague of Maggie’s we have some generous piles of muck ripening on the plot. Turn but a spade and start a wriggling congregation of worms, working away in the wet bins this poo is in, and from time to time I move some manure (and worms) into the compost bins or to round the rhubarb or the fruit trees, or wherever. It feels good to help the soil and the plants along, and the worms do their bit, eating their decaying organic surrounding (and by the way, this isn’t an advice piece on wormeries: check out the RHS or someone) and helping turn rather odd claggy and sandy soil into the stuff that gives us pumpkins and potatoes,
And there I have it: helping. I have phrased this in such a way as to making these co-habitants appear to be working with us to produce something for our consumption – yet really I am using the same material they are, and profiting from their industry.
This isn’t a plea for a kind of extreme pro-animal gardening in which I avoid using any animals’ processes to better my plot, my enjoyment, my diet. I am aware, with the poet Anne Stevenson that lost to the angels, it appears/We share with rats and fleas a murky source. Acknowledging this, I find worms fascinating in what they do and how they live (look at this for guidance in schools, again from RHS, or this, from the Earthworm Society of Britain) yet as I dug, and spread, and mixed I did wonder: if it freezes tonight will I have harmed the worms? That writhing pink mass that got distributed to the new rhubarb and the goosegogs: was it some wormy gathering I broke up, a striving for mating, even in some sort a family? And the robin on the plot, and the corvids in the trees – will they profit from my digging at the expense of these worms? At home the chickens will slurp up a worm they find like a child attacks spaghetti.
So I dig and spread. The robin keeps an eye on what it can have when I am gone. The blackbird too is carefully noting what I am up to. The jackdaws (and even the raven, I think) patrol the allotments for what they might have. The worms are our – what? Helpers? Coworkers? Victims?
And if I think that at least my warming compost and sticky middens are a nice place for these creatures, what does that mean? I am not farming them, keeping them there to break up my manure (well, not my manure, but you know what I mean, I hope); they simply arrive in a way that makes me see the plausibility of spontaneous generation, and I am profiting from it, using their consumption to make better compost, to enrich my soil, feed me. Me, me me, mine, mine mine. Maybe it is this framing that shows how lost to the angels I am.
Our plaited genes mean nothing to the spheres;
contingency, not prayer, will plot your course.
Anne Stevenson, To Phoebe (at five months)
I can’t leave it there. Even in a wormy pile of farmyard clearings, there is much more than this. A history of hunter gatherers bettering themselves, of birds pecking and cows shitting: as Hopkins sees it, a rich pattern of everything that is swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. Anne Stevenson, too, is aware of the to-and-fro of divinity and the secular (in part what Andrew Wright, in moving towards a definition of spirituality calls the mind-matter dualism that shapes our struggle for meaning) and bringsit out wonderfully:
I took with me one of the books I was given as a present: Qing Li’s Into the Forest, (pictured above, left). This is a well-produced and scholarly look at Shinrin-Yoku, Forest Bathing – and this blog post is, in part, a response to the book and the practices it affirms. Qing Li is an epidemiologist in Japan, and the book is at once a toe-in-the-water popular account of the research, and a “how-to” guide to a practice of which Dr Li is a major proponent. Oh yes, in the West it’s a fad perhaps, and, at its lightest, simply a wish-list of mindfulness practices in nice places, but its underlying messages are worth consideration – the kind of thing I clumsily contemplated back in 2018. For example, here (p121) are Qing Li’s proposals for engaging the senses:
Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees
Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches
Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural therapy of phytoncides
Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths
Place your hands on the trunk of the tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground
Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness
And here I was on my birthday with a walking pole – a bare, stout stick – in a sunny, chilly local wood. A raven kronks and kaarks overhead. I sit by a brook and watch a robin. A muntjac comes up to me and then, suddenly spooked, disappears into the bushes and bracken. What did I go out into the wilderness to see?
I didn’t go out to see the beautiful photography that genuinely enriches this book (so much so that I sent it to my rather immobile and certainly locked-down dad). I know Shotover, I know Oxfordshire in winter when blood is nipp’d and ways be foul; this is not the hinoki tree, or the Sagano bamboo forest in the book – or the massive stands of bamboo we met while in Montpellier on holiday. This isn’t a criticism of the book, which has, I know, to have a wider appeal that just to me – but its gorgeous photographs of forests and leaves and sky make me wonder about the woodlands we have access to here in southern England in winter.
Connection to people may well be part of the human condition, and certainly forms part of what I would think of as my own experience of spirituality (I look back at this post and see how it is crammed with names) but on my birthday I spent time alone, not fretting over tasks to be done, or mooning over missed friends or thinking of crass mistakes and mishaps of the past. It was as if my present to myself, or maybe my present from Maggie (who gave me the Into the Forest book) was an opportunity to look over the shoulders of these concerns. I’m aware of the human activity around me, aware of what human activity there has been in the past, but today it’s about hearing the leaves. It’s not even remotely transcendent: it’s just leaves and robins.
As Qing Li puts it,
The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think… In the forest we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.
Into the Forest, p166.
Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is worth citing here, both from the 1989 book The Experience of Nature she and Steven Kaplan wrote, and from other writers looking at their work such as this readable little introduction. I explored it here in a blog post just as my last year at Brookes was coming to a close. To relieve the overburdening experiences of desk bound, urban life, “mental fatigue,” she recommends being engrossed in the environment, purposeful exploration and a real sense of “being away.” It is remarkably similar to the Japanese movement – but again, can we truly escape in suburban Britain? The wood I was in, Brasenose Wood, at the foot of Shotover, has a constant thrum of traffic from the Oxford ring road, and although it is possible to screen it out, doing so is an extra task.
The trees were so grey it made the greens of mosses stand out as if they were lit from within; the sky, when it is blue, is likewise full of light, and on my birthday, it was like Inchbold’s Study in March. As the recent snow melted the trickles were everywhere. At my first stop, I listened under the traffic burr to the water, the robins, a kite high up in the sky. The increased quiet as I went further up and further in (the reference is to C S Lewis) was obvious. The high trees moved and rattled in the wind. On Shotover I am not away in a wilderness miles wide, but making the Edgelands a place where at least some of this escape is possible.
This (rather image-heavy) post is principally for ‘my’ undergraduates in Outdoor Learning and for the MA students in Children’s Literature through the ages. For this reason, although it jumps about a bit, it essentially is trying to cover ground they may (or let’s face it may very well not) find useful. Covering ground: metaphor already. At any rate the two modules each have their own concerns about the relationship between literature and place.
Perhaps I should start with a quick run-down of some maps I can lay my hands on easily: Lewis (Baynes), Tolkien and Le Guin, the sources being my Puffin Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my paperback of The Two Towers and (because the representation of Earthsea I have is over the gutter of an endpaper) Ursula K Le Guin’s Estate website. They are all of places in fantasy literature, but that’s just because I’m reading Le Guin at the moment; one of my favourites ends this post. Maybe, as Simon Schama invites us to see the ghostly outline of an old landscape beneath the superficial coverings of the contemporary (Landscape and memory, p16), the maps of fantasy worlds also invite us to look at our own world.
Maps have been discussed as an important part of the writing and reading processes for all sorts of authors – here is Tolkien’s famous dictum on the subject – but I want to think about what they do in a story. Sometimes, as in Watership Down they build a sense of reality – Watership Down being a good case, a story built around a real place; we might also consider the Antarctica of Shackleton’s expedition (another real place) or Katie Morag’s only-just-fictional home island of Struay. Thorin’s map in The Hobbit stands as a way of telling us about the lie of the land, gives Tolkien – through Gandalf and the dwarves – some reason for plot exposition as it is explained to Bilbo, and is the map they use to find a way into the Lonely Mountain. We might also recognise that the absence of a map – as in Garner’s Thursbitch (my comment on maps is here) or The Owl Service – sometimes has a hand in enhancing the mystery. But perhaps Garner is a digression.
Do what do maps do in stories? They are sometimes there to anchor the storytelling for the readers – to show us, if not Frodo, the way to Mordor; to show us, if not Hazel, a Kehaar’s-eye view of the Downs. They are also props in the story: Pauline Baynes’ map of the Lone Islands in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a nautical map to roll out on a table. And beyond this are illustrations such as William Grill’s maps in Shackleton’s Journey, integral to the reader’s understanding of the routes and the perils along it.
Maps of a real or fictional place cannot replace entirely the narrator’s skill, any more than a writer can describe a landscape with the overlapping details of, say an OS map, without an exhaustive set of appendices or digressions. Ursual Le Guin’s own line is revealing:
Its use to me was practical. A navigator needs a chart. As my characters sailed about, I needed to know how far apart the islands lay…
and she poses herself the key questions for her conjuring Earthsea;
What island lay farthest to the west. Selidor. Look at Havnor: big enough that there might be people living inland who’d never seen the sea. What sort of magic did they really do in Paln? What about the big Kargish land of Hur-at-Hur, way out there as far east as Astowell and quite unknown to the Archipelgans – were there ever dragons there?
U K Le Guin “The Books of Earthsea:” Introduction
For le Guin the map provides the shelves on which the stories will grow, like in a greenhouse. We follow her about as she follows her characters. What is it like, this place?
But sometimes it is left to the critic to put flesh on the bones of landscape – for example Chris Lovegrove and his work on (among other lands and universes) Joan Aiken’s world of Willoughby Chase. This doesn’t let the writer off the hook of course, so when the rabbits come to what will be their stronghold in Watership Down the map (see above) gives way to the desciption:
Now with his head pointing upwards [Hazel] found himself gazing at the ridge, as over the sky-line came the silent, moving, red-tinged cumuli…. He realised now they were almost on level ground. Indeed the slope was no more than gentle for some way back along the line by which they had come; but he had been preoccupied with the idea of danger and had not noticed the change. They were on the top of the down.
Richard Adams, Watership Down – ch 18: on Watership Down
And similarly, when the Dawn Treader sails towards the Lone Islands (do we need to pause here and think of the untold story of Narnian colonialism? Isthe story at all interesting, Mr Lewis?) the map serves to give us all an understanding of what can and what can’t be seen from the Governor’s residence when Caspian’s arrival threatens his position: it is, like Thorin’s map in The Hobbit, both a guide for us and a prop in the drama.
Sometimes – I would say very often – it’s not the bare narrative that needs them but the ethos of the world created. They are a kind of uber-illustration of the world of the story: they provoke question and exploration; they suggest a visit; they might provoke nostalgia. Le Guin’s Earthsea is such: an important extra in the telling of the story, illustrating distance, possible threat, possible alliances and cultural overlap: how close the dragons on Pendor are to little Low Torning is important in Wizard; their intrusion into the West Reach will return in the final book The Other Wind.
Maps of real places have a powerful pull – to visit, to return. It is their detail in part that powers up the nostalgia. Such is the power of a map that seeing Garland’s map in Henry and Fowler – which included the Nursery School my son had gone to to, close to where we had lived – was one of the tipping points that made us look at coming back to Oxford from Co Durham.
Pedagogically, fictional places with accompanying maps can allow a pause in the reading to explore, to ponder – a good map will have more than the simple route, but will invite the “what’s that?” “what if” questions that a text will propose in different ways.
Lastly, then, here are some slightly different Oxford images: Tenniel’s view of the chessboard landscape in Through the Looking Glass; floods in Christ Church meadow; the bridge from Friars’ Wharf to the Grandpont suburb of the city. The first two images (l-r) relate to Lewis Carroll’s storytelling. The fantasy of the Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass worlds is based around the eccentricities of people the Liddell children knew in Oxford; this first view is, I think, based on the chequerboard of small fields and dykes and ditches within a mile of Christ Church towards North Hinksey. The second is a flood on the marshy fields between Christ Church and the Thames – and in literary terms we can think of the floods in the Sheep Shop in Wool and Water, but also, now, of Malcolm’s eponymous little boat in La Belle Sauvage. The third – again, the Thames, in the area explored in many of the works of Sarah Garland – for our children’s journey into town this was always the Polly Puffin Bridge, after the illustration in Garland’s lost-and-found story set in the city.
And the final (huge) task is to ask a set of comparative questions about the relationship between map and illustration. Are illustrations – the Tenniel or the Garland here, for example, doing the same kind of job as a book-map? Are maps from a stricter cartographic discipline (such as OS Maps) doing a different job again? What does seeing the “real” place add to our appreciation of the author/illustrator’s work? I love Christ Church meadow in frost and flood and sun – but do I need to see it in photographic form or in real life to appreciate the strange chaos of the flood in the Sheep Shop? I sometimes want(ed) to say to crocodiles of tourists “This isn’t Hogwarts, really, you know” and “This isn’t really Wonderland.” And then I see that tourism is looking to show off the “real Hundred Acre Wood.” The rant would be a digression – and after all, what were we doing in Thursbitch or Ludchurch?
I think that depictions of South Oxford – the map from Henry and Fowler, the same towpath in Polly’s Puffin – give us detail both help with what Molly Bang in Picture This calls the emotional content of pictures, something which can be done in all sorts of ways, and which visual art, hand-in-hand with text (what Mat Tobin calls a symbiotic, fruitful relationship), does powerfully. Maps in fiction texts are a subtle, shifting part of this symbiosis: the mutual enrichment that works well in good quality fiction can go further when a map illustrates the place.
Oh enough: I’ll simply cite Mat’s blog here:
I always call on Maurice Sendak who said: ‘I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author has already illustrated with words’. A great picturebook is one in which the words and the pictures work together to tell the story but they never say the same thing.
…and end with the emotive map that has been at the back of my mind since I started writing this: Moominvalley. Even more than Milne and Shepard’s 100 Acre Wood Tove Jansson’s valley was a map for my play.
Or rather two projects for Advent that deal with two of the major Christmastide feasts, Epiphany and Candlemas. Yes, trees come down earlier every year (perhaps they went up earlier this year, too) and the foodfest came and went in a fog of tiers, but the Christmas story continues (as Chris Lovegrove attests) with festive decoration – and in the liturgy various bits of Infancy narrative – to end just before Lent.
Everything is out of sequence is preparing stuff: projects have their own timetables and participants, run-in time for one thing can be longer than for another. Turkeys are raised before Puddings are made, after all. So I’m going to describe these – ah, the wonders of word-processing – in the order that I did them, and then store this up for beyond Twelfth Night.
For we have found our Christ, our August Here in the zero days before Lent
And this is just some brief reflections and a link…
The podcast itself explains the Polonsky-Bodleian project looking at a multi-layered liturgical MS; watch it by all means. I can’t ask anyone to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” because it was precisely a drawing aside of a curtain that so disturbed and delighted me: the ‘singing teacher’ (I was so billed) with MS scholars and liturgists: Andrew Dunning and Henrike Laehnemann,
What did the participants learn? I can only speak for myself. The brief was to present chant in a manuscript for the people joining the podcast to get the feel of singing from an early source. Not hugely early, but different enough for people to get a feel of the medieval liturgy and its books. They/ we were aided and abetted by the setting and small schola in the dark of St Peter in the East, now part of St Edmund Hall in Oxford, but of course we couldn’t rely on that to do more than afford a quick look into the complexities of performance: here, Henrike’s expertise and clarity told the story of the manuscript and the meaning of the music, and Andrew’s understanding – and physical handling – of the manuscript (Bodleian Libraries MS. Lat liturg. e. 18) and MSS in general brought a high appreciation of the book, its most gothick embellishments being from the nineteenth century.
I look at the podcast and wish I didn’t wave my hands towards the camera quite so much, and wish I didn’t stumble and look down at my text so much either…
Is that what I learned? I learned about MS. Lat liturg. e. 18 and felt I got to grips with how MSS change use as well as context. This guide to the Cistercian ritual of a Provost and clergy, and the nuns and the people shows how difficult producing a liturgical text is, as if the text cannot quite reconcile itself to use by all sorts of people (compare an altar missal even in the newest editions with people’s missals). Even when a rough depiction of the medieval liturgy is the “private breakfast” (to use a phrase from the Reformation) of the celebrant, the needs and the participation of the wider church attendees demand attention. Henrike and Andrew were good at explaining this, setting the book in the history of its uses – and I found myself thinking of those MSS – books of devotion, books of hours, books with the list of the best indulgences near London – I wandered through in the 80s l, that I scathing joked about when they had this text or that, or something scribbled out. I spent too long on the crossword puzzle to see it was actually a biography. This December I learned again the living use of these books, and how that life meant change.
I also found how much I still knew, how much I had forgotten. Perhaps there is another page here for Books of Life and Death.
Journey of the Magi
T S Eliot recorded a sonorous, meditative – may I say parsonically dull? – rendition of one of his most famous shorter poems, John Gielgud gave it more blood if not more warmth (it is not a warm poem) and my good friend Roger Dalrymple asked me in November to join him and others in a version in which he would sew together lines read in various places and by various people. I was gobsmacked at being asked to join in, even more amazed to be asked to read the opening lines:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
Having been given these overture lines, I set about thinking how the poem should be introduced. I felt I was given the compere role: after all they set the theme, don’t they? Yes and no. It was a relief to hear that each participant brings to it their own voice; like a children’s Nativity, there are more kings than three (and why not?), and if I was freezing (I should have worn boots for early morning in a damp meadow) and the weather chill, well, that’s one king’s view. It might be argued that the whole thing should have been filmed in a Summer Santorini – or a ruined Syrian city – but this one king in a foggy field recalls and reinhabits the wintry cold to set the scene. And on reading the poem through for clues as to how to deliver those lines, I saw very starkly that it is the last line, not the first three, that provides the tone.
Gielgud’s petulant tone tells us how much the mage has lost as much as how much there is to gain in the Theophany – costing, as Eliot says elsewhere, not less than everything. So I am happy with my slightly moany start to the poem. Transport lets you down; plans change; it is not what you expected when you get there: the same kind of travel as anyone might have – until nearly half way through, when the feeling that this was all folly changes. In the Epiphany we look out over the dark fields – the little torches of lesser festivals almost lost in the dark – towards Lent and Easter.
…The lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight…
T S Eliot, Choruses from The Rock
How much of this year has seemed folly? How much more of this is there to do?
Preparing for the performance – selfishly not counting Roger’s editorial time and the other participants’ efforts – entailed a very close reading. I tried it first of all as recitation – almost as I might read a poem from Isaiah in Church. Maybe that was what Eliot was trying; it certainly didn’t work for me. So as I explained I went out and tried it a number of times in various ways – with me in camera, with the frosty sunrise on Warneford Meadow along the Old Road down from Shotover, in a chilly fog, without me to be seen. These were more successful, and I think this was because I wanted more than just “saying my lines” (more echoes of the Primary School Nativity) I looked at the whole poem, went back to Matthew’s Gospel, tried to see the white horse galloping, the gamblers. But the ones without me in perhaps were bloodless: the speaker was needed, just as Eliot’s rendition seems to me. I sent various copies to Roger for him to choose, and his choice works, I think. Working with Roger reminded me sharply of reading the speech from Gawain’s guide for the Wild Spaces Wild Magic group when we went up to the (possible) Green Chapel, and how the different translations – and for Roger the ME text – needed acting more than some kind of ecclesial declamation.
I found working with the T S Eliot so challenging and so revelatory – is the word fun permissible? – that I set about doing a version just for close friends of Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. All those long echoes… and the dear love of friends. Cooper’s poem, is much more like the secular Yule and, as this bleakest year dies, a warming message, hoping against hope, maybe…
Trying to pick common themes from my Christmas present gifts is a tall order, but with the title I have given this post, I have to start from Joe Shute and his book A Shadow Above, an account of ravens, the bird that, as the author says, embodies our best and worse impulses and symbolises our deepest fears. It is Joe’s book that takes me to the Sutcliff-like Iron Age and, taking in The Wanderer, to the mind- boggling archaeology of Danebury, where ritual mutilation and burial of ravens has been discovered:
Why did our ancestors choose to be buried alongside ravens? The theory now being suggested by a growing number of academics and archaeologists is that by placing ravens in these pits, they were offered up as gifts to the gods of the underworld… In a society where birds and animals were seen as a continuum of human life rather than as something existing alongside it, the ravens were there to perpetuate the existence of the human soul and be our companion and guide in the afterlife.
A Shadow Above, Ch 2: Bird of Omen
Ravens as corpse stealers, wisdom bringers, companions in death and scavengers of battle-fields bring me to Annie Dillard, the inescapable prophet of what it’s like to live alongside ‘nature.’
Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings in the skull…
The Abundance, One Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley
…the canary that sings in the skull, or the raven that sits on (in) the shoulder?
It is by pure coincidence that I chose to put my three ravens high up by my clavicle, a palpation (or less) away from the raven-like (or raven’s-beak-like) structure in the shoulder, but today, thanks to these two authors it strikes me as significant – we make a bony structure seem like a raven, I sit three ravens on my shoulder – and as Dougie Strang, standing on the mound Diarmaid’s Grave, proclaims in his essay in Antlers of Water
I’d no idea what lay beneath me. Stories attach themselves to ancient sites, building layers of meaning that aren’t always consistent with the archaeology. The mound at Cunside is ambiguous: it might be the remains of a Bronze Age cairn, or the graver of a Viking raider who sailed up the Kyle, or simply a pile of stones, cleared from the infield byu early settlers. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that those who lived at Cunside knew that this was Diarmaid’s grave and that his story put them in their place.
Dougie Strang, Diarmaid’s Grave, in Antlers of Water, ed Kathleen Jamie
and I wonder about that raven in my shoulder, another bump in the landscape that carries a story, a symbol. We make patterns, we explain, we tell stories – and maybe we tell stories about our bodies like we tell stories about our land, our past. The Highland grave of a long-gone hero, looming over Christmastide Bethlehem and the green shadows of Ludchurch and Gawain… travel writing, nature writing, spiritual writing: stories in a time of lockdown…
At once I am relying again on the contemplative footsteps of Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff, on the keen eye of Mat Tobin, to see what there is to see, to learn the legends that explain landscape – and with them I can hear my own worry that we are becoming incurious about the wild spaces and about their stories.
A word or two from Joe Shute, to ground me in the real worlds of the ferocious intelligence of ravens. Here he is meeting Loki and Elliott, one of his humans:
He is startlingly tactile with Elliott, jumping onto his shoulder and head and allowing him to stroke his black, glossy plumage. It takes a few minutes for him to settle and grow used to the strange faces looking in at him, then he permits us to stroke his soft neck-feathers too. This close the raven’s plumage is an array of purple, greens and brown that pool shimmering together.
Ch 4, Speaking with Ravens
And here we see Joe out in the dark, in the wilds of Anglesey, and despite the shadows this is vivid, grounded writing:
We stand together in silence as the ravens settle and the nightly dialogue begins.
How to describe the calls? The pig snorts, rolling logs, horse hooves on a hard road, chittering primates and popping champagne corks that come to my ears, seem far too parochial manifestations of this preternatural medley. As the night passes, we even hear snatches of raven song, a whispered ethereal sound barely audible through the chorus.
Ch 8 A Night in a Raven Roost
As with so much in Antlers of Water, the really vivid in A Shadow Above is in the actual, the seen and touched, the place driven to. But this reading week after Christmas has included the transcendental nature writing of Annie Dillard: she must have the last word in this post, a call for reverence and beauty, the stuff that has sustained me in troublesome 2020 and will doubtless be needed in the coming year:
This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant…loud as music, filling the grasses and skies
In a monumental stumble – or set of stumbles – the current government have altered the COVID-19 restrictions from those they imposed so recently – and with such derision of others. They have proved themselves unequal to the pressures they face within and without. Today’s U-turn is one no amount of privileged bluster and Oxford Union rhetoric should be able to cover. This is not Isaiah’s or Vergil’s messianic comfort; this isn’t even a dull year of personal and societal trudge – so what is it?
It is not just the “cancelling of Christmas” that makes me think of Narnia and its blighted time of always winter and never Christmas (a thoughtful little post here), but as people look for the gathering conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn I look for the first turnings to justice and restoration that are the pivot in the first chapters in the story of the young prince Caspian. Here the prince is with his tutor Doctor Cornelius:
There was no difficulty in picking out the two stars they had come to see. They hung rather low in the southern sky, almost as bright as two little moons and very close together. “Are they going to have a collision?” he asked in an awestruck voice. “Nay, dear Prince,” said the Doctor (and he too spoke in a whisper). “The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest.’
C S Lewis: Prince Caspian Ch 4
All of a sudden the half-glimmers of hope of Caspian’s story begin to come true, and the Kings and Queens of old come back, and Narnia is restored. There is, in Caspian’s terror and joy, something of Betjeman’s repeated questionAnd is it true? And is it true…?
And tonight it feels very far from the cosy querulousness of Betjeman – but while I am thinking of Lewis and Betjeman, I can skip forward to more earthy and grounded words of comfort from perhaps the greatest character in Lewis’ Narnia, Puddleglum:
Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.
Very much as a continuation of the post from the start of December, I wanted to look at woodlands that are not contemplative spaces but may also be places of danger and menace. There is a bear in Brendon Chase, a giant – and weasels, and so on – in the Little Grey Men, but I will leave B.B. for now and look first at perhaps the most famous of menacing woods, Mole’s entry to the Wild Wood:
There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.
Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.
Then the faces began.
It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face, a little, evil, wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.
He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then—yes!—no!—yes! certainly a little, narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated—braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.
If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.
Then the whistling began.
Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he—he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.
Then the pattering began.
He thought it was only falling leaves at first, so slight and delicate was the sound of it. Then as it grew it took a regular rhythm, and he knew it for nothing else but the pat-pat-pat of little feet still a very long way off. Was it in front or behind? It seemed to be first one, and then the other, then both. It grew and it multiplied, till from every quarter as he listened anxiously, leaning this way and that, it seemed to be closing in on him. As he stood still to hearken, a rabbit came running hard towards him through the trees. He waited, expecting it to slacken pace or to swerve from him into a different course. Instead, the animal almost brushed him as it dashed past, his face set and hard, his eyes staring. “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” the Mole heard him mutter as he swung round a stump and disappeared down a friendly burrow.
The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry leaf-carpet spread around him. The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or—somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things, he darted under things and dodged round things. At last he took refuge in the deep, dark hollow of an old beech tree, which offered shelter, concealment—perhaps even safety, but who could tell? Anyhow, he was too tired to run any further, and could only snuggle down into the dry leaves which had drifted into the hollow and hope he was safe for a time. And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fulness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment—that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, ch 3, The Wild Wood
The inexperienced, the unwary learn a lesson here – so much of Wind in the Willows is about self-discovery – and a parallel section – again, early on its story, and with a rescue at the end – occurs in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, where the boy Drem has run away from home, has turned to the wilderness in an attempt to avoid a looming and unpleasant truth:
Only – only it seemed change was coming over the forest.
Or maybe it was that he was awake and aware of the forest now as he had not been before; awake to the darkness and the crowding trees that were suddenly – not quite what trees should be, not quite what they were in the day-time; to the furry that was full of voices, the whispering, rustling, stealthy voices of the forest, that were not the voices of the daytime either. There were little nameless rustlings through the undergrowth, the soft swish of wings through the branches overhead; in the distance a small animal screamed and Drem knew that somewhere a fox had made its kill. Surely the whole forest was disturbed tonight. But those were not the sounds that are raised the hair on the back of his neck. Once he thought he heard the breathing of a big animal close at hand, and as he checked, his own breath caught in his throat; something brushed through the undergrowth towards him, and there was a sudden silver pattering like rain among the leaves – but it was not raining. He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him. He whirled about, his hand on the knife in his belt, but there was nothing there. Nothing but the furry darkness. And far off through the trees, he thought that something laughed. His heart was racing now, sickeningly, right up in his throat; he struggled on again, blindly. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. But even as he blundered on, above the brushing and crackling that he made, above the drubbing of his heart, he heard a soft, stealthy panting as though the Thing prowled at his heels. But it was not only at his heels now, it was all around him, in front as well as behind, and the forest itself, the whole forest was like some great hunting cat crouched to spring. ‘Don’t run!’ said the hunter that was born and bred in him that knew the ways of the wild through hundreds of generations. ‘Don’t run!’ But terror had him in its power, and he was running, with no more sense of direction than a mouse with a stoat behind it.
Brambles tore his skin, fallen branches tripped him, low-hanging boughs slashed across his face as he crashed from the undergrowth that seemed to lay hold of him with wicked, clawing hands. This was the Fear that walked the forest, the Terror of the Soul. He had never felt it before, but the hunter within him knew it; the Fear that prowled soft footed beyond the cave mouth and the firelight.
Rosemary Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet. 2: Talore the Hunter
It is much less consciously poetic than Grahame’s Wild Wood, but picks up the same theme: the crisis of the small creature in a world that is unsafe. For Graham the menace grows in those single and then the …began lines. Each one of them heralds a growing feeling of discomfort, all indistinct to start with. The growing menace is all the more chilling for its being all but intangible.
Rosemary Sutcliff also pulls out all the stops. The second only marks the change, reflected in the ways her writing suggests that all those semi-colons and oddly placed commas are stage directions for reading aloud. Consider, for example the ways they she gives the reader to “perform” this example:
He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him.
Her text is broken up, so that it reads like fragments: He pushed on again – more quickly now – carelessly – stumbling suggesting the boy’s intention scattering as the fear – sorry the Fear – takes hold. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. We have lost the externality of the narrator and fallen into Drem’s own breathless panic.
I wonder if these two tenser images of the terrifying aspects of the Woods are longer because I revel in them and therefore chose the longer sections or because, as Tolkien famously says things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a great deal of telling anyway. The negotium perambulans in tenebris – as the English puts it the pestilence that walketh in darkness – the “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility” as M R James warns the curious – is a fear from before the time of the Psalms.
I mentioned previously the slow burn of violence and sex and mistrust and uncertainty in Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and won’t labour the point: Mythago is not a landscape written with children in mind anyway. The increase of fear in Moominland Midwinter as the wolves approach the little dog Sorry-oo; in Mirkwood, the dark, spider-infested nightmare in The Hobbit, escape is just into another problem; but in Tolkien’s Old Forest in Lord of the Rings, rescue comes – because the binary of narrative asserts itself here (as in Mole’s Wild Wood and Drem’s wilderness) – in the impossible jollity of Tom Bombadil: but each time the hunted finds refuge. It is the turning point of the journey: as Sara Maitland explains
It is when you are going out into the forest, not when you are trying to return home from it, that you get lost, that the forest is at its densest and most frightening.
Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: Staverton Thicks
Peril and escape, peril and rescue in the Forest – could we call it the Woodcutter Imperative, perhaps? – occur elsewhere, too, of course. We sometimes find a solution in the woods, despite the fear: Drem will, Mole will, Frodo and Bilbo will, although in a switchback of perilous events – and of course Merry and Pippin will too, in the curious encounters with the Ents.
The Wart , the future King Arthur of T H White’s tragedy The Once and Future King, pursues the hawk into the Forest Sauvage, and White draws on the same themes, but at this point is knowingly engaging the reader (‘nowadays”), and by doing so lessens the panic:
Wart would not have been frightened of an English forest nowadays, but the great jungle of Old England was a different matter. It was not only that there were wild boars in it, whose sounders would at this season be furiously rooting about, nor that one of the surviving wolves might be slinking behind any tree, with pale eyes and slavering chops. The mad and wicked animals were not the only inhabitants of the crowded gloom. When men themselves became wicked they took refuge there, outlaws cunning and bloody as the gore-crow, and as persecuted. …
There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws…who lived together and wore green and shot with arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.
Added to this, there was the fact that it was getting dark. The forest was trackless and nobody in the village knew what was on the other side. The evening hush had fallen, and the high trees stood looking at the Wart without a sound.
T H White, The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone Ch II
The woods, therefore, are not always the joyous and therapeutic place we might imagine, but part of the inimical outdoors, a place of magical, dangerous encounter, the space for menace and danger that will resolve itself or become a meeting with someone or something that will rescue or transform the person who has ventured in (Badger for Mole; Talore for Drem; Merlyn for the Wart; Fangorn for Merry and Pippin – and is it too fanciful to suggest Mellors for Lady Chatterley?). Not comfortable places – but places for an important meeting to take place.
Here is an Old Man Willow up the Windrush valley, on a winter afternoon – possibly not really that old, given willows’ life spans – but a bit of pareidolia suggests a face – and I think of the trees of the Old Forest, the Winter King and thus of course to The Green Knight and to the Christmas that is coming.
Which brings me to a tree end with: my admission that the first tree in the greenwood that I found truly terrifying still has the power the raise the hairs on my arms, and is, of course; not Tolkien’s willow, but
a tree where no tree should be – a tree shaped roughly like a stooping man, that waved its long arms before it and clutched at the air with its long fingers.