An Earlier Life

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 between them, 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.

Ibid

Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.

I

held my breath

as we do

sometimes

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.

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