Silence, honey cakes and lockdown

Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”

One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.

It is interesting to note that much of the work we have detailing the sayings of the early Desert Monastics is about them as people: people getting along with one another, or not. I chose as a title to this post a deliberate nod not only to those early pioneers but also to one of their most readable modern commentators: Rowan Williams, whose book Silence and Honey Cakes is full of great stories from the Desert Fathers and Mothers and marvellous insights into their applicability. What is Macarius asking his brothers to flee?

“Hermit” gives an oddly disconnected view of their loose communities of monasteries, solitaries, eccentrics, radicals. The early Desert Monastics practised some radical solitude, it’s true, and are wary of meetings (judgemental), interviews (occasions to be distracted by praise), liturgy and communal meals (an easy time to show one’s piety). The “silence/ that is his chosen medium/of communication” (I’m coming to R S Thomas in a minute) is their chosen way, and what we have left is fragments of maybe rare conversation. They flee, to seems to me, a sense of belonging. Maybe it is missing that very sense of belonging that makes me – religion or no – feel deracinated: in all this lockdown I want my friends back, my community of people to affirm and challenge, to affirm and challenge me, to make me feel at home. We console ourselves with “when this is all over” utopias when when we want – at least I know what I want – is a bit of my own control back. Thank heavens for the Internet? This is birthday time for many in our family: the Internet is a pale substitute.

So this year when we come to the most communal, Catholic bits of the year it is odd to see them as a time when we are alone. Alone with the TV or computer monitor, watching someone else “doing” the liturgy. Having begun my active involvement in Catholic liturgy in the last years of the old dispensation, some of this feels quite familiar: watching; listening; the “act of Spiritual Communion” (instead of queueing for frequent reception of the sacrament) – but it also presents the challenge I think Macarius is dealing with here. It’s about authenticity: now I can’t shuffle up to the front, half-attentive and half-wondering about the next piece of music; now I can’t squeeze in a pre-Easter Confession, the whole thing is laid out before me: I actually have to engage, to believe, to sort out what is sinful from what is embarrassing, to think about the circumstances and actions of the first Passiontide. At a deep level (and rather at an odd angle, to mix my images), by not being able to pick and choose, pick up “my” sacraments, I am less of a consumer and more of a participant. That is not really very comfortable a role in today’s society where “my” seems inextricably tied in to “my” choices.

And that – and the worries of my family in the present virus, and missing my friends, and feeling as if I’m not coping and all the uncomfortable truths about that – brought me to a bout of anxious sleeplessness that I would prefer not to repeat for some time. But at least even that brought me to reading and reading and reading. I finished my comfort read (mostly bath times for the past week or so) of C S Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, and over a 03.30 cuppa took down R S Thomas from the shelf. Now, much of his poetry doesn’t make for comfort reading, but does say a lot about the appalling honesty with which Thomas looks at his own spirituality. He is able, like very few other writers, to look at the aridity of his own spirituality and bring out something amazing. Perhaps apt for this time of year is to compare him to the blackthorn, whose beautiful flowers appear on the dark wood and among the sharp thorns. In his poem on Hebrews 12:29 Thomas has this marvellous few lines that go way beyond conventional Christianity and speak of how we confront our own need for authenticity:

To be brought near

stars and microbes does us no good,

chrysalises all, that pupate

idle thoughts. We have started and stared and not stared

truth out…

RS Thomas, Hebrews 12:29 (Collected Poems p484)

But actually “fleeing” also means I need to set aside telling myself (and anyone that wanders onto here) how grandly heroic this all is.

Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis

In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, nine-year-old Gwyn Griffiths, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends. 

Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago. 

Chris Lovegrove who blogs here as Calmgrove and I will be discussing a range of topics that have occurred to us while reading Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. It falls to me to start, and I’ve chosen to think briefly about one aspect of Griffiths family’s emotional landscape.

Gwyn is given five odd birthday gifts by his Nain, his Grandmother, who suggests he remember his roots, in part his connection to ancient Welsh magicians. This explicit link to a magical past is one not many in Gwyn’s family ever have, and increases the tensions and distance between the boy and his father. 

The mountain Gwyn lives on is also the place he has to challenge the negative forces of the past, whose rage and hatred are contained in a broken model of a horse, symbol and remnant of a jealousy and anger that should have resolved but has not. In this respect we are on the same turf as another Gwyn, the haunted heir of past mistakes and ancient jealousies from The Owl Service – but Jenny Nimmo’s young protagonist, while he feels similar tensions, is also more of an agent: not just an inheritor, Gwyn Griffiths is growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician. 

The opening crisis – the boy’s ninth birthday party which his father, Ivor, breaks up with implacable rage – is a disturbing plunge into the family dynamics of the farm: Gwyn’s sister went missing in a snow storm on the boy’s birthday when he was five.  It would have been straightforward, I imagine, to write about Gwyn’s struggle with his family and his own loss of his sister in terms of his own anger: trapped by his past, he could rail against circumstance and either come to terms with it or be broken by it. It bubbles through the relationships he has at school, his burgeoning realisations of his magic, the personification of anger in the broken horse (I’m coming to this); yet a quick search for “angry” in the text reveals that Gwyn is not always the one to be angry.  In the tensions of his mother, his father, the magic around him and his past, Gwyn is buffeted by the anger of others like the wintry winds of his hillside.

Gwyn is curiously forgiving, to the extreme that suggests a cautious painting by the author of a family in crisis, on the edge, maybe, of emotional abuse.  Gwyn’s father cannot detach from the loss of his daughter, Bethan, and is left only with negativity to his son. Gwyn knew his father could not help the bitterness that burst out of him every now and then, and he had acquired a habit of distancing himself from the ugly words. It is noteworthy that the new Television version (currently airing) seems to present the father in terms of his inner pain, rather than his distance and anger.  He is frozen in the grief and anger at the loss of his daughter. 

Jenny Nimmo plays skillfully with the psychogeography of the farm. The family are at once free to move around – across the mountain, despite its danger; down into the village, over to see Gwyn’s Nain – and yet, like a real farming family, have an eye to the windy, snowy weather than can pin them down and that four years ago took Bethan from them. Gwyn’s father cannot let go of his anguish; Gwyn and his mother cannot discuss the pain they feel: they are trapped by their trauma.

The broken horse – a deliberate harking-back to the maiming of horses in the Mabinogion  which retells mythic past of the area – is a terrifying symbol of this destructive hatred. It is “grotesque:” earless, tailless, lidless like the ones maimed by the prince Efnisien.  Nain expresses her fear of it, “a dreadful thing” in which long-ago hatreds are stored, all too ready to be released. It symbolises a powerful anger that Gwyn has to name and conquer: but Gwyn’s anger is itself trapped, not allowed a voice. It is only as he comes into his power that Gwyn realises that he can use it, and when he does, in his confrontation with a boy at school, it is clumsy and ill-timed, and Gwyn comes off the worst. Like his father, Gwyn is suffering and inarticulate; unlike his father, he has resources of language and magic – or perhaps the magic of language –  to help him. But the fight with Dewi and his gang is a turning point for Gwyn and his father; Ivor Griffiths musters his anger to defend his son, and the influence of the mysterious girl Eirlys is felt as the father’s mood softens. She is there to mark the thaw, like the snowdrop her name signifies. 

“It seems to me,” advises Eirlys, ”that if you are to stop the thing, you have to get its name, discover what it is.”  This is the task of the young magician – and, at one level it is of any young person as they grow: to recognise and to name emotions. This language is what Gwyn brings to his family crisis, to the healing of his family that start as trapped and inarticulate. At the end Gwyn’s parents are healed but “too old” to express how they feel as the story resolves, except in the plainest of terms, the words Gwyn has missed for four long years of growing: “I’m glad.” 

Escape, extent and serendipity

There was a time long ago – say, last Sunday afternoon – when nipping off for a run seemed easy and natural. And on Monday, when Jeff and I went for a walk – well, it seemed a normal thing. Bloke. Dog. Biscuits. Sunshine. The political clouds of isolation and the warning that people had to be more responsible were looming, but dogs gotta walk, and man’s gotta be sensible about “social isolation.” That seemed about it.

Jeff the dog and I went to South Park and Warneford Meadow. We got muddy, he more than I, we looked at the various corvids and the people playing basketball, he ate dog biscuits and I didn’t, and we were sensible about keeping ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t do the reckless “last weekend before we have to be indoors” congregating, but yes, it seemed that keeping to guidelines was easy. A new politeness was emerging around how far apart we needed to be from people we passed, it’s true, but in any case they weren’t people either of us knew, not even nodding acquaintances. A quick chat with the basketballers a good 4m away and then we moved on. We got closer to magpies, to be honest. Three for a girl, if I remember rightly.

Only with yesterday evening’s pronouncements did that mood really change, and I think in retrospect we pushed it a bit. Maybe it was my day’s exercise. It will have to stand as such.

Wind back a week and I am with Mat high on the Downs, and you could not wish for a lovelier day. Sunny again, breezy, a sharp-eyed, sharp-minded kestrel of a good friend, everything bright and fair. As I discussed here, human relation to place is, for Robert Mcfarlane, grounded in language; but language is itself grounded in relationship. I’m coming back to this.

Back to the Friday before and Lizzie, Maggie and I walk through the Aberlady nature reserve and across the beach to Gullane. A bright sun, a brisk wind. Family enjoying one another’s company.

But these are not excuses to show snapshots. What is it that gave these trips significance? Why feel better after them? They both lacked the challenge of Rob Macfarlane’s exploration of the treacherous Broomway or even the experience of our face-to-face encounter at Ludchurch. What is it that some trips into the outdoors bring? and how do we represent that in time and place without it being, like these photos, just a grown-up version of What I did on My Holidays?

The absolutely seminal book on the psychology of the outdoors for me is the 1989 book The Experience of Nature, by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. In it, they explore dimensions that may provide a framework for how “nature” helps and supports psychological wellbeing. Extent; fascination; action and compatibility. Because their work looks to the “wilderness” they address the nation of escape as well, which they view with some caution because it has in it “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present and presumably not always preferred.” I can see their point, but given that it is early work (thirty years ago) and has been superseded in many ways (partly by the new nature writing itself), I want to raise the question of escape with someone. Here, further off on the Aberlady sand dune, is Maggie; Mat not only drove the two of us to Uffington, his insights enriched our visit. We are “political animals” – not because we are forever tuned into the depressing power games (or, if you like, selfless and inspirational leadership) that cram our news until we cannot see what’s actually happening – but because we are defined by how we live in the company of others. I go out on my own but with me come meetings to have, people I want to see (or don’t), ideas to bounce off others. I bring the city with me. And similarly I contend that a visit to Uffington means I am “with” (metaphorically) Rosemary Sutcliff, or that to go to Ludchurch “with” Alan Garner is not to travel alone. In some ways, the accompanying author or characters provide what the Kaplans call action and compatibility, and of course are the spur to action via the notion of fascination. We go “Backpacking with the Saints” according to Belden Lane (article here; link to the [excellent] book is here. Name the saints that come with you.

Lane, a “scholar in recovery” takes with him insights from the Desert Monastics and “a few lines of Rumi” and is wedded to the silence that wilderness can bring. Not as far into my recovery I have taken Gawain, most recently Sun Horse Moon Horse and the Land of the White Horse. Somewhere in my mental backpack are lines and vistas from writers such as Robert Macfarlane, C S Lewis, Oliver Rackham…. This isn’t a boast: I sometimes wonder whether I could leave them in the car. Would this then be more of an escape, or given the liberating nature of some of this writing, less of one? And what about extent? Do we need the wide open wilderness of the Ozarks are we OK with the view from the White Horse down into the farmlands of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire? I think of Aberlady, where I have no literary baggage to bring: an escape, as the Kaplans would see it from particular content, “a rest from pursuing certain purposes.” I wonder if writing about his wilderness hikes took the edge off the experience from Beldin Lane…

But for the trips that fall under the Wild Spaces Wild Magic umbrella I really have to take the authors firmly in my hand and my mind: last week for example I was reading the episode of Lubrin Dhu’s planning of the White Horse from Rosemary Sutcliff and looking for where she might have sited the Wych Elm. She comes with me and by extension the characters she calls into being; David Miles comes with me – my copy of his book has a smudge of Uffington soil on the page of his site plan (p101, if you’re interested); Mat of course comes with me. Identifying where this Wych Elm might have been, we find some wild apple trees by chance and wonder: are these the inspiration for the sacred apple trees in Sun Horse Moon Horse?

Social aspects of serendipity (see for example Morrissey’s “An autoethnographic inquiry into the role of serendipity in becoming a teacher educator/researcher,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2014) seem to me to work alongside the changeability of being outside. Less is in the enquirers’ control, expectations have to change. Two pairs of eyes are able (sometimes) to be more alert to these changes: sagacity (Morrissey again) enhances serendipity but are two heads better than one? If we are aware of the dangers of shoring up each other’s ideas, might collaboration, like identifying mistakes (Morrissey) “also uncover for the researcher… fears, preconceptions or beliefs …of which he/she had hitherto been unaware”?

And if we are accompanied by the cloud of witnesses from literature – such as nature writers and their places, fiction writers and their characters – then we might address two notions (or one single notion with two aspects? I’m not sure as I write) of psychogeography and autoethnography. How much, in other words, does setting (in its broadest sense) and personal history of setting enhance or detract from personal reading of landscape? I am conscious of the dilemmas where Dyson writes “In recognising that I was a subject and an object of the research I realised that at the same time I was and could be both an insider and an outsider within the culture that I was investigating.” (From his article My Story in a Profession of Stories: Auto Ethnography – an Empowering Methodology for Educators, 2007). I rejoice in being on the Downs with Mat; I am very glad we have purpose in a book I love; I am exhilarated in the chill breeze and bright sun. To change from his journey metaphor to one of wind or water, being the reader and a colleague in an investigating team involves recognising how all sorts of things flow over one another: the reader and her/his history; the researcher and her/his concerns and limitations; the authors under investigation, their sources, their motives, their depiction of place and character; and being a research partner multiplies these complexities. For me this links with Rob Macfarlane’s lines from his introduction to The Living Mountain:

…the world itself is therefore not the unchanging object…but instead endlessly relational. It is made manifest only by only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions… We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits…

We are human, language-loving and people-loving; we are also placed: physically located on a windy ridge above a deserted farmhouse in the Peak district, or searching for a tree that may never have been at the foot of the Downs.

To conclude with Belden Lane, who may be close to an answer here (I know I’m not): The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. I think he also could have said, Tell me the place to which you are drawn, and I’ll tell you who you are becoming. 

No Eye in England


Sitting in one of the cellar-reading rooms of the Bodleian (as I was when I read it) I was not sure about Jon Stallworthy’s poem(s) about the White Horse. Skyhorse (in Body Language) is a collection of voices from the earliest creators of the White Horse through Tom Brown’s scourers to the poet himself seeing in the new year and envisioning all these past people, all in a series of different poems. Some of them seem to me overblown – the rather odd parody of C13th lyric, the clumsy attempt at dialect straight from a C19th Archers character (if such a thing had existed – I was rather reminded of the country folk waking in Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer) – and perhaps the whole attempt at a solemn parody across ages and languages and cultures misses me, but I have to say there are some wonderful lines and images.

“When the day’s eye opened

mine could see it shine…”

“No eye in England has seen so much…

Where legend says the Danes made their last stand.”

And for me (who saw in the dawn of a new millennium on another hill, above Oxford) the Wandering Scholar 1999/2000 has some resonance deeper than the words:

“…Lifting its lucent head

it turned a terrible eye to mine,

and a voice at my ear said

‘The skyhorse calls for his bondsman…’

For me, David Miles (yes, I have mentioned him before) has a clearer vision:

Landscape, as the word implies, is a matter of perception. We see it like a painting. We see what we expect to see; Flaubert and I, and everyone else, appreciate what we have learned to like. As an archaeologist I want to see beyond the immediate landscape into the palimpsest of fragments. To try and understand the interplay of geology, climate, plants, animals and humans.

As Philip Hughes puts it (with a directness that opposes this nuanced view) “To walk the track gives a very special feeling. You know you are in an ancient landscape.” His sparse and plain, largely unpopulated pictures of the Ridgeway or Orkney or the South Downs challenge the viewer to see shape and light, not history. Annie Dillon, likewise, paints the White Horse in beautiful, almost geological terms, from high above it like a Kite or a Buzzard or the Hill’s soaring skylarks. Like Hughes, her views of Oxfordshire are to do with colour and line, not directly people: the Thames at the foot of Wittenham Clumps; the clouds above the Clumps…

And yet of course they are to do with people, in both cases: Sarsens erected by people nameless now and dead; houses at the foot of Dorchester Abbey; fields ready for harvest or sowing; paths made by the tracks of humans.

The palimpsest of fragments: the idea that we piece together what we know about a place from the bits left, the ground written over by a later generation. It is a well-nigh perfect image. And maybe it continues as a model for literature? There has been some debate today in the run-up to the release of Hilary Mantel’s final Thomas Cromwell novel about what makes historical fiction work and what makes it popular. Is it about a reflection of the time and interests of the writer?

I know it’s rude of me, but I think I want to say “so what?” to that question. Of course historical fiction works like that, just as non-fiction writing reflects the interests of writer and reader; fantasy fiction too, in various ways in its various forms, might look at technological advance, at what moral choices are set before the characters…. Writing in “sundry times and in divers manners” (Hebrews 1:1) is not a fixed thing with a set purpose. The reader has the job of revelling in this richness – but maybe not being seduced into it. Was Peter Abelard the tortured soul his own account makes him out to be and which Helen Waddell picks up? Or a lecturer whose proximity to a very young female student had disastrous consequences for her, for him, maybe for their son? Writing and reading may have different contexts, and it is our job to read the palimpsests carefully – ours and the writers.

So I don’t come to Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse with the same eye as I have to the book that put me on to it, David Miles’ study of the history and culture of the White Horse. I can appreciate GKC’s lines:

His century like a small dark cloud
Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,
Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud
And the dense arrows drive.

but I almost feel the same about Chesterton himself: his life overlaps with that of my parents, but his ideas and his ambiguities seem of another time. Led by Miles’ study, I don’t need to accept GKC’s identification of Uffington, in the thornland of Ethandune, with the site of Alfred’s battles, any more than I do to accept the legend of the nearby Blowing Stone. I can appreciate the rhetoric of his poetry; I can at least feel the pull of his vision of/for England, maybe a despair at its state when he writes

The lamps are dying in your homes,
The fruits upon your bough

and even though I don’t share the feeling behind them, I can see the battle sequences work as well as many in Tolkien:

Steel and lightning broke about him,
Battle-bays and palm,
All the sea-kings swayed among
Woods of the Wessex arms upflung,
The trumpet of the Roman tongue,
The thunder of the psalm.

He has other voices here, too. When Chesterton writes

O’er a few round hills forgotten
The trees grow tall in rings,
And the trees talk together
Of many pagan things.

Yet I could lie and listen
With a cross upon my clay,
And hear unhurt for ever
What the trees of Britain say.

there is a poignancy I can really identify with. It is Kipling’s Charm Take of English earth reworked.

I can see, too, what he is imagining when he writes

One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly–
But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.

without the vision of Lepanto (which always seems a bizarre reworking of Marian theology) intruding on my understanding of the battles of Alfred.

How many layers of palimpsest are here? Scrape at the chalk of Uffington (actually don’t: I’m being metaphorical on a site of national importance), at Asser, at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, at David Miles, at Thomas Hughes, Philip Hughes, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jill Paton Walsh and Kevin Crossley-Holland…. These are the layers, the voices, that Stallworthy is attempting to uncover with his Skyhorse. These are the layers the critical reader of historical fiction needs to take account of, to work through.

Inner Tube at Mike’s House

One of the delights of using dictation software – and I use it increasingly to note down quotations – is the wild guesses it makes about words. Has it got used to me with place names such as Ludchurch or Uffington? I don’t know. As this blog post’s title suggests, it certainly wasn’t prepared for the dark and sacred depths of “the inner tomb at Maeshowe.” Maeshowe or Maes Howe, whose significance (detailed in very modern terms here) lies in its being, along with the rest of the complex archaeology of the area, such an astonishing “example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape…” Even the dry report cannot escape a tone of wonder.

But I have to come clean and admit where I am: in my study in Headington, reading Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing. It has some spellbindingly great writing, and shares insights from all sorts of digging and wandering and wondering and loving from Sutherland (and back again) through the discarded bikes and tundra-preserved past of the Yup’ik and the eyes and spirals of the Noltland dig and the rummage through the layers of the author’s own life. Careful here, Nick, not to unearth too much: the book demands its own read.

But at least I can share a few things: all, this time, from the central section (as I read it) of Jamie’s visits to the Orkneys. It is full of lovely lines and images: If seals could watch Netflix, they would and I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of hard to know there is still room in the world for a summers day and a cow called Daisy.

The author is shown a warehouse of finds:

Graeme opened one particular box to show me a slender implement reminiscent of those nibbled pens we used at school, to practise joined up handwriting. It could have come from his own school house.

“You see how the tip is stained dark?” He said. “We think it was used for tattooing…“

Hazel and Graeme showed me more beads, some made of animal teeth, and half-made beads, lots of beads. Thick pins of bone, as long as your hand, presumably used for fastening clothing…

For a moment, out of the twenty-first–century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, they emerged a vision of people closed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

Jamie has already asked about Neolithic ghosts, concluding, maybe rather sadly, that Ghosts have a half-life, it seems, lingering just a few hundred years, till they too fade away. I am reminded of the ghostly Lord Kildonan whose haunting fades with the years in M R James’s Residence at Whitminster – only to reemerge some years later in a different form. It could be an allegory of sorts for the antiquarian. Here in the Victorian warehouse however, she seems able to conjure such spirits like Prospero as she speculates on the Neolithic settlers:

Different groups, with their different clothing and accents, tools and designs arriving here, but very soon after their arrival, there will be no one alive who could remember the journey. Doubtless there were stories. Origin stories. Contact with other peoples of the same ilk, who spoke the same language, at other settlements. Great ceremonial gatherings, informed by movements of sun and moon, risings and settings, alignments of stones. The midwinter sunrise shines down the passageway at Newgrange, the midwinter sunset illuminates the inner tomb at Maeshowe.

How did they know that, these kids of twenty or thirty years old, with their bone and stone tools?

I am reminded of the poem of Frances Horovitz Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall (from her Snow Light, Water Light, and found in this collection) which likewise looks at finds at contemplates a culture long gone. Starting with the confident To Jove, best and greatest she chants the museum labels – billhook, holdfast, trivet/latch lifter, nail lifter, snaffle bit… until she reaches the unknowns and uncertainties dedication partly obliterated/with human figure in rude relief… All a bit of a challenge for the dictation software, because they are outside the range of frequency to be picked up by the software: just not used enough? So I am back thinking of the Lost Words – but then, oddly, of the book that inspired so many daydreams when Maggie and I were first married, John SeymoursSelf Sufficiency. Such daydreams – and tonight is simply the Allotment AGM, and I am “doing the teas.”

One of the joys of the modern nature writers is that they will not only write of the sod lit hut by a seal-oil lamp but also of the welcome cuppa, not only a song about time and change but also about pub night and Wifi. The Inner Tube at Mike’s House would not be out of place. Kathleen Jamie is a writer whose poetic instinct draws us into her world of spirituality and history and topography; she is another of those writers, Rob Macfarlane, Peter Fiennes, Rob Cowen… travel writers, nature writers, topographers in what Robert Mac’s Cambridge page calls Geohumanities. A neat (and maybe not uncritical) review of Macfarlane and Jamie and the phenomenon of British nature writing appears here.

As an aside: the more I think of that term, the more I like it. It is Geohumanities (as a metonymy) that impells the glossaries in Landmarks; that makes connections (reliable or not) in Watkins’ The Old Straight Track, that watch the revelation of Yup’ik past in Surfacing… I am beginning to wonder whether it is a term that could be applied to fiction, too: to Peter Dickinson’s The Kin, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse. I don’t think I have an answer.

If all goes well, I will be taking time soon with my friend Mat on Uffington White Horse. In my hand I will have my (now signed!) copy of David MilesThe Land of the White Horse. On my ‘phone I will have a collection of poems about the place: Jon Stallworthy, G K Chesterton, and if I can find it in time, Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s poem which celebrates the Ridgeway – and of course Frances Horovitz. They all speak – in very different ways – of how landscape and language interrelate: Chesterton is full of a great battle that made England; Horovitz has a mystical white horse that she urges to strike fire to the earth from air. But behind all of this will be the repeated challenge of Kathleen Jamie that all the writers I’m lauding here are answering, as she asks again and again:

Why feel anything? Do you understand? Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The path is at your feet, see?

Frogs are Nothing Fancy

Except in some ways they are. They were today, down in the Lye Valley. In among the “warm thick slobber/of frogspawn that grew like clotted water” as Seamus Heaney puts it, were maybe a hundred frogs. Alerted by a notice from social media, I took Ivy, keen and energetic to see the frogs spawning in the fenny ponds near our house.

They weren’t Heaney’s “slime kings,” “their blunt heads farting,” but a congregation of animals, a welcome sign of spring on a warm afternoon. Not coarse, and not apocalyptic, just frogs: welcome, exuberantly sexual and productive. One watched us carefully as she sat in her grey cloud of eggs, her sides heaving; others climbed, swam, grabbed, and croaked like a distant motorbike starting up.

My immediate thought is that Bashō has it right: keep to the bare thing itself (a nice explanation of Bashō’s famous frog haiku and some translations are to be found here; more, with Zen comments, here) in a few terse lines: eschew the grandiose. Today at Mass, the preacher interrupted his own flow to correct his phrasing around a (very good) point of his sermon on Christology and spirituality and say “O dear, what pretentious twaddle!” – and perhaps Bashō does better with his short invitation to join him by the pond.

Continue reading “Frogs are Nothing Fancy”

The First Tree in the Greenwood


We had a big tree taken down today: the holly that was up against the conservatory and breaking the guttering, knocking and scratching against the roof like a new Green Noah, blocking access to the down pipes – and providing a roost for the ten or so goldfinches that dive around the gardens hereabouts. It was really sad to see it go, to see it reduced from a straggling giant to such a small pile of logs, and to hear the chipper from the tree surgeons crunching up smaller branches for mulch.

The finches and the pigeons will have just a couple more meters to fly to get to our next-door-neightbour’s feeding station; and I am just those few steps further from the pull of the wood-wide web. Now, this isn’t the felling of the Urwald, I know, or even coping with the aftermath of Storms Ciara and Dennis – although I suppose it might be some insurance against Ellen, Francis and their friends – but somehow feels all the worse for that: I have had a tall holly felled because it was in my way. I look again at the collection Arboreal to find Zaffar Kunial describing the laburnum in his back garden as a child and his relationship with the woodland of Moseley Bog (and thence to the Old Forest in Tolkein) and as an adult to Cragg Vale (more Ben Myers Calderdale links), and he notes that “the presence of the old woods wasn’t far away… I don’t feel I’m far off much older beginnings.” Except I do: I now look out at the space where until this morning the holly waved outside my window and feel that I am that much further off: a weed tree, a self-seed pain-in-the-arse tree has gone (or, if you like, the great tree that gave the Green Knight his “holyn bobbe/That is gratest in grene when greves ar bare’), and the greenwood has receded just that little bit further.