Mindful of Hardships

Swa cwæð eardstapa,

earfeþa gemyndig

So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships

I’ve been here before, bemoaning the state we’re in. So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships. It is an amazing bit of poetry, and way outside my discipline to comment on his making or even, truth be told, to get through it without a parallel text (this is the one I’m using) and a dictionary/thesaurus. As the world gets bleaker, I find my thinking informed by the voices of poets condemning what we might think of as alienation, sin-sickness, the prophetic Leonard Cohen telling us to “say the mea culpa which you probably forgot,” Shirley Collins’ moving images of powerlessness, locked in ice.

And yet today has gone well. Yes, for me at least, friends have made a difference. It shows me how fragile my feelings are, but on the first day back in the Bodleian (and admittedly only getting my new reader’s card) and noting that my last day of “proper” research was up on the Downs on a blowy March day, things have gone well.

Most of them. The desolation of the Wanderer was not really in my brief, but made my own annoyances seem petty – but the actual devastation of England by those with grubby paws, and people’s disquiet at the ways in which so much emnity is washing around made it seem rather apt. Early morning sleeplessness is of no use, nor is a way of thinking that is rough and sorrowful. Physical affection is barred us, so we have each become the wineleas guma, friendless man.

Swa þes middangeard

ealra dogra gehwam

dreoseð ond fealleð

So this Middle-earth, a bit each day droops and decays.

And so I felt I was back in a low mood about the state of things at the present: precious and venerable woodland desecrated, MPs snidily threatening that people who help the poor cannot expect help from Government themselves, MPs’ pay rises and subsidised food while children in this locality go hungry… But the one thing that has always given me a small shred of comfort has been the notion that my response has to be one I own fully: not a bandwagon (however righteous) or sense of despair (however justified). And this is where we need kind-ness, that feeling of people belonging, of my belonging and the duty of care that brings.

And then Richard Powers, he of The Overstory, had a short essay in the paper yesterday. He is not overly hopeful about the American election and suggests that whatever the outcome

It will take decades to heal the deep wounds.

Richard Powers, How do we become a serious people again?

…but then suggests line I had not read from Walt Whitman. The poem from which they are taken is a longer plea for a United America, but these lines brought me back to a plea from earlier blogs:

OVER the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,

Those who love each other shall become invincible,

Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage, Leaves of Grass

and continues

The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)

So Whitman was there before me (this is not really a surprise) in a plea for affection, friendship, fellow-feeling triumphing over institution and when earlier I asked about the human aspect of wholeness, “When This Is All Over” what will wellbeing be like? and maybe more urgently how might we get there, the personal is what we are left with, and knowing one another as of the same kind, kind-ness, compassion, is the place we start.

The Right to be Ordinary

Perry Nodelman generously shared his detailed and insightful essay on gender in the developing narrative of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, full of wisdom and rich in neat phrases. His Reinventing the Past: Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu and the Earthsea\” Trilogy\” looks at how LeGuin seeks to make sense of a Jungian landscape of shadow and a search for wholeness. This post (as I stand in awe at Perry’s scholarship) seeks not to contradict him – I can see what he is doing – but to see the fourth book of the Earthsea Trilogy [sic: and Perry reminds me that there is more to comment on after Tehanu] as a genuine attempt at a conclusion, and especially to assess its impact on my own thinking. I can’t do it without spoilers, and I can’t do it without at least some self-disclosure: apologies all round, perhaps.

A Wizard of Earthsea begins with the identification of a young wizard, a neglected young goat herder. Stumbling into his maturity he encounters power and the ambiguity of failure. His quest brings him close to the primal dragons and across into a land of death, the enemies he encounters only really being faced down as the trilogy unfolds. This is the highest of high fantasy.

The sense of magic ending or fading, marking a lot of great fantasy writing – Tolkien’s elves going into the West, followed by the apotheosis at the end of all things in Lewis’ Narnia, the departure of Merriman and the Old Ones for Susan Cooper – is also present in Ged’s magic world: we see its shadows, its limits, and witness its increasing weakness. Ged finally confronts death, and in a powerful scene the great dragon Orm Embar dies where his father died,

…and the fire died in his nostrils till they became like pits of ash…

LeGuin, The Farthest Shore, ch 11

Fantasy in Earthsea, it seems to me, is in its death-throws on the remote island of Selidor.

In the ending of The Tombs of Atuan Ged’s liberation of Tenar from being a priestess of shadows allows her a recuperation from the grandiose myths she has served,

Tenar’s loss of the power of darkness earns her the right to be ordinary

Nodelman

I see a justice in Tenar liberating the lost and visionless Ged in Tehanu. No longer taking his place is palaces and magic, he learns love and desire and rediscovers the plain concerns of the everyday. Candide-like, the characters turn their backs on the doings of the great and cultivate their own gardens in what Julian Barnes has called horticultural quietism. It was this phrase, and Perry’s line about ordnariness that took me back to Thomas Merton, and although I cannot begin to suggest LeGuin and Merton knew each other or that their common interest in Tao and Zen inspired anything more than a chance convergent evolution, this poem strikes me as having something to say about the ending of Tehanu:

When in the soul of the serene disciple

With no more Fathers to imitate

Poverty is a success,

It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,

Are angry with the noble ruin,

Saints departs in several directions.

Be still:

There is no longer any need of comment.

It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares,

A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find

Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.

There are no ways,

No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.

His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?

Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

Thomas Merton “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple” The Strange Islands

The image that is near the top of this blog is the three first Earthsea books and then my iPad; I realise I don’t own a hard copy of Tehanu – which is symbolised by the iPad and a picture of the dawn, the same dawn that ends this post. Sun rises; work impinges: to be ordinary is not a choice. It was this line and similar ones that made me think more than twice about (as the phrase goes) “trying my vocation.” I think my Mertonitis took me away from the monastery more than towards it – and I read Perry’s work and re-read the end of Tehanu on my thirty-nineth wedding anniversary. Thirty-nine years ago… And since then, so much has changed. I am struck by how in my own life and society at large – and immensely so since Earthsea first was published – still there are New things to be learned, no doubt. It is, I think, becoming for the final judgement at the end to belong to Tenar:

She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west. ‘I think we can live there,’ she said.

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive , tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

You Can’t Have That Wish, My Little Bear

I would like to write a post in praise of Else Holmelund Minarik‘s Little Bear books with their illustrations by Maurice Sendak – but this is not that post. Indeed, I can’t have that wish at this point. What I want to do is speculate on the enduring power of the words in children’s books, and therefore to start with Little Bear, which provided some phrases that still get an airing at various times in our family.

The title for the blog post gives us the first. When Little Bear can’t sleep, his impossible wishes – actually extreme negotiating positions as he angles for a story – are met with Mother Bear saying You can’t have that wish, my Little Bear. In an earlier story in this little collection, Little Bear sees his lunch set out and says it looks like a good lunch for a little bear. Both of these passed into our family’s phrasebank, and we even now have a big black pot, which means we can ask about dinner by saying Is it in the big black pot? and birthday cakes are sometimes greeted by Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake. There is a wonderful cadence in all these phrases that means they lend themselves to repetition, and nostalgia for times when we were parents of young children keep them alive, no doubt.

Little Bear now has “his” own YouTube channel, with the animated stories in gentle colours, but it’s that gentle, simple and very open-to-interpretation prose in the books that delighted us. But is it just us? I would love to know if other families found it to have such an impact – and if other books have added to family phrasebanks. Did Snufkin listening to laughter, running feet, and the clanging of great bells far out to sea stick in someone’s vocabulary? Or the Elephant and the Bad Baby‘s rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road accompany many shopping trips?

And if so, what made such phrases not only have immediate quotability but longer-term stickability too? Was it the power of an original context? The prosody? The story? And what from more recent books has – or might in the future have – that power?

Jeremiads

A Snowflake Writes?

It is a wet Saturday evening as I start to write. That’s not to say that damp days are always a bad thing, but tonight as I look out the world looks gloomy. Somehow the continued botches of our current government around schools and safety in this time of potential illness are the worst, filling me with dread for what is to come: popularism that does not even have efficiency on its side, last-minute patches on policy: adhocracy as someone described it to me.

This sat with an increasing but largely unacknowledged personal malaise – sleeplessness, irritability, all sorts of stuff I should have seen as part of a tide of – what? Anxiety and a feeling that I was alone and unloveable. The moan of the irrational snowflake? The weariness that attaches itself to people just fed up of so many things going wrong: plague after plague: the boils and lice of 2020. The weariness of isolation so perfectly caught by Shirley Collins in her haunting Locked in Ice – the fearful guarantee that I’d be run aground. Not so much a snowflake, then, but a blizzard.

There is sometimes a temptation to see the present hard times as very limited “over by Christmas” – but it is worth remembering that the concertina effect of some historical reflection sees Henry VIII’s destruction as a short blip, or the Vikings who came and were violent and then set up the Danelaw in a few episodes, or even further back, the siege of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon as soon over: a blizzard soon past, when in fact they lasted years, with effects still felt in culture and outlook. The malaise we suffer spiritually will not, I fear, pass any quicker than the physical illness. And that makes me sad, to say the least.

But if we’re going Biblical, the gloom of the prophet Jeremiah is worth considering here. In Ch 8 his poetic/prohetic voice depicts a rudderless land where hopes have withered.

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Dolor meus super dolorem in me cor meum maerens.

Jeremiah 8: 18 (KJV/Vulgate)

In the line adopted (to tragi-comic effect) by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the prophet bemoans

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Transiit messis finita est aestas et nos salvati non sumus.

Jeremiah 8:20 (KJV/Vulgate)

Why isn’t it (define “it,” of course) sorted by now? All those utopias we wanted by the autumn: where are they? Why can I not track this package, of all the packages I ordered?

Of course the reason it’s not here is the complex relationships to all the solutions people want: ecojustice; social liberation; touch; an end to greedy politicians squirrelling away money and holding power by sweaty lies. The recent protest against vaccinations and masks is enough to show how divided we all are, how mistrust in all sorts of causes and solutions is deeply eating into what passes for society. Mistrust, selfishness and what seems like no way out: we seem in a quicksand of grime, and so when C S Lewis’ saintly hero Ransom is explaining to Merlin how the world has changed since the time of Arthur, he describes modern society vividly:

…maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands.

C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength

But Lewis’ near-apocalyptic, celestial intervention will not do, even for a Christian reading a Christian apologist. We are back to that other Merlin, Cooper’s Merriman Lyon and his charge that it is up to us. The writer of the Apocalypse – as I read it, full of an impotent rage as persecution strikes the early Church – looks for a world where a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) will replace the turmoil of the present. He is looking to external agents for a big show-down, when I think we need to look closer to home, as I have said in a previous blog post – to compassion, to peace-making.

We feel we are on the edge of time, as individuals we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

Thich Nhat Hahn: Being Peace

I got so far in my thinking about the lessons I took from Jeremiah and from Thich Nhat Hahn and I ask: what might my response be to the current crises – these interlocking disasters of various kinds – which despite the noises and wishes I see in my corner of Twitter will not go away quickly: what do I do as Jeremiah is persecuted and the city falls, and the Babylonian exile begins? The Shirley Collins song summed it up: a little Ghost Ship on the Beaufort Sea: where the ice goes, I go.

And then the ice breaks, just a bit. Enough. It starts with a sunnier day, the warm, open expression of gratitude from a dear friend, and then Maggie and I started sharing Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays, Vesper Flights (some of which I had already heard on the BBC). She laments the loss of a meadow from her childhood and hopes for its restoration in a new building development:

The pull on my heart is also the pain of knowing that this is possible, but that it is very unlikely. Centuries of habitat loss and the slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Tekels Park

Never reversed. Yes, I can see that, almost taste it sometimes. Yet just as I’ve cited the idea of 3 Ways of compassionfor self; for others; from others – there is also something of an answer in these first pages:

Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those who are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Introduction.

August Brambles

Last night, 15th August, I went out on a whim for some blackberries. Past the campus buildings (some fruit there, harder to spot as the light faded) and onto Warneford Meadow, to the tall banks of nettles and brambles, wet from the rain. A quick bowl full to add to some porridge for tea, and they made a real celebration. Locality and peace, as Auden prays for. I picked some more this morning when I went out to take the photo at the bottom of this post.

Earlier I cited Belden Lane (in turn quoting another writer) saying Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. An appropriate and even important challenge as people strain to make holidays work, or to get home from them – and one echoed in some ways by the earthy, everyday (or at least seasonal) sacrament of brambling. Homely in the most basic sense. And (of course), the glorious Mary Oliver has been treading down the undergrowth to get there before me:

August
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, 
in the brambles nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high 
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is 
this happy tongue.

Sacra Iuventus

Alcuin has to join those writers I have discussed before – Walafrid Strabo, Paulinus, Ausonius – as worthy of particular mention at this time, and I just want to explore briefly some of the phrases in the poem called Cella Alcuini, in the little collection that came to me recently. I’ve found the Latin text and a translation here, but not before I stumbled through it with (as the first photo shows) a fat Latin dictionary.

The poem starts as a kind of monastic eclogue: Alcuin rejoices in his “cella,” his enclosure, where the apples are ripe, the lilies and little roses bloom. Everything in the garden really is lovely.

But the tone changes. The transitory nature of this comfortable life is underlined; poetry is gone, the boys are no longer singing. It is different from Horace (another Flaccus: Alcuin is not unaware of his predecessor) in that the Horatian ode Eheu fugaces seems to me to be about approaching Death, whereas Alcuin, leaning on his staff sees his youth departing but another vocation pressing (Ian Chadwick, by the way, has a good exposition of Horace here; perhaps a drier blog, but with the full text and translation is to be found here from John Derbyshire). His youth departing: an unintentional double meaning here? I think it is not unreasonable to see Cella as mourning not so much the arrival of wrinkles as the departure of a way of life or a a much loved younger companion. The tone changes – and I am unsure about whether the awkwardness of this is purposeful or not. When seems clear to me in that second half is that the post-Horatian praise of Alcuin’s dwelling – not a “cell” as commonly understood, but a compound, a settlement – is interrupted by the more passionate writing.

Two images stand out for me:

Quae campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus

Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior

And

Nos miseri cur te fugitivum mundus amamus

Alcuin is missing the mundus, the physicality of his garden, of the sacra iuventus out in the fields, even of his religious life – ces voix d’enfants chantants dans la coupole from Verlaine and Eliot. There are other points of reference, but I’m reminded of the “sacred days” of Ray Davis and Kirsty McColl, and Days (another link for me might be Sainte-Colombe’s Tombeau Les Regrets, but this isn’t the place to explore all these thems in every genre): Alcuin’s regrets are a spur to something else…

I am struck by the image of an old man and his stick (an abbatial staff?) looking back at the lads chasing deer: it is so vivid I cannot help but think it is “drawn from the life” in some way: Alcuin’s memory of his own youth or an experience with his students. How, then, do I want to translate that phrase sacra iuventus? What is sacra? My initial thought was to see this use of “sacred” as akin to the idea of the precious freedom of childhood, an early exploring of the ideas that emerge in the Romantic and post-Romantic period in poets and educationalists alike.

Maybe that innocence and excitement is there in germ, but I think I want to explore briefly is how sacer is used where Alcuin would have seen it most: the liturgical texts, where a sacrifice makes something sacred. Is that what Alcuin is suggesting? The boy chasing the deer is one consecrated to God? A youthful cleric? Or does iuventus stand for a gang of lads from the school in York? That would work: the holy youth (singular or plural) chase[s] the deer, the older man leans on his staff – tired: a suggestion that the dedication of the young has past. Ah, except that the rest of the poem suggests that it is in old age we turn to something more demanding, more transcendent: that play between cur…fugitivum…amamus and Christum nos semper amemus then becomes key: why do we love you, fleeting world? Fly, fly: let us always love Christ… A pious thought.

And yet I come back to “those endless days, those sacred days.” Is the old Alcuin leaning on his staff and looking at the energy of a long-gone youth and seeing it as having its own unattainable glory? Can he discern with Larkin and Marvell and Yeats and the rest that what he partakes of is only their scrap of history? Does his wistfulness suggest he protests too much when he needs to repurpose his love (amor and amemus dominate these last lines of the poem)? Or is he suggesting in his own way that

What will survive of us is love

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

A Familiar Outdoors

Tulip, from Benjamin and Tulip

Sorry: this is a long post written over quite a few days. I hope it still holds together. We’ll start with a very odd but charming landscape drawing from Rosemary Wells. Detail is reduced and reduced: character becomes a threatening little tail from a barebones sketch of a tree. We will come to know this tree, and the owner of the tail, as the eponymous Benjamin and Tulip‘s relationship develops, but for now it is a tree: it is a stage set for a conflict, nothing more.

When Peter Feinnes raises the question if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? (I cited him here but felt as I wrote that piece there was more to say) I wondered – right back to my first thinkings of a research project that didn’t make it to PhD – about depicting familiar landscapes. Here are two to explore: on the left a building identified as “Playschool” in Sarah Garland‘s 1990 book “Going to Playschool” and on the right, a wood in “The Wild Woods” by Simon James.

“Playschool” is different from the woods for me in that the building and its environs are South and West Oxford: the tower behind the school building is the Seacourt Tower in Botley, whereas the woods are everywhere-woods, at least everywhere in England. Does the fact that I recognise how Sarah Garland uses places I recognise alter my reading of the book? Yes it does, and although I can see how she has used locations imaginatively here and in her books about Polly to tell a good story (shortening roads, reworking shop locations) the connection with Oxford that our family felt reading her books when we had left for Durham was an important part of our decision to come back. That map of South Oxford in Henry and Fowler had a real effect in that it was instrumental in our deciding to move back. But this is only (only?) personal: does this pull of recognition have to be there?

I suggest it doesn’t need to be exact; otherwise Polly’s Puffin and the rest would have a limited audience, and Simon James’ grandad would be doomed to walk the woods unnoticed. What they need is a location that can be recognised enough for the reader to sympathise: for example the “playgroup” (I keep the inverted commas because the actual school is a fully-fledged, free-standing Nursery School) just needs to look like somewher readers (adult and child) can sense some familiarity with – as the Head Teacher of that very Nursery once said of a good Early Years setting “lots of interesting things to do and lots of people to do them with.” Woods, likewise, when not places of fantasy and peril, are a mixture of trees and streams and wildlife, and I have written lots on these: they are a unit of understanding in exploring nature in UK, changing from environment to environment, set up, fought for, mourned, looked after, neglected…. but woods are recognisable, a meme, to use Dawkins’ idea, a topos if we follow Jane Carroll’s framework (worked out via Cooper, Garner et al in her book and discussed in part by me here, but see her staff page for an extensive list of writings) – and in Simon James’ everywood, where grandad and granddaughter explore, get wet, meet a squirrel in a place that, if not every child’s common experience, are at least, well, part of their cultural landscape. That itself begs all sorts of questions about cultural capital and landscape, into which this is a first tentative step.

The universal wood of Simon James – and the tree that starts off this blog post, the hiding place of Rosemary Wells‘ disruptive raccoon Tulip – are places the reader can see and say “Yes, I know that place.” Not so, when an illustration seeks to depict a landscape that may be unfamiliar to the reader, and this is worth a brief digression. The lovely Handa from Eileen Browne’s Kenya is at the heart of a number of stories, and still well appreciated, still “going strong,” but not without difficulties: especially where that familiar is a false familiarity, we are in real danger of stereotypes.

There is a tricky line for authors and illustrators – and their readers – to tread in making the places in stories stand for universals. Handa cannot stand for every African – I think the link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the danger of a single story is pertinent here. Just in the same way as she found she did not need to see rural Nigerians as without creativity, to see them as simply “poor,” Browne has a difficult task here in showing a girl in rural Kenya as resourceful, generous, but choosing a very traditional rural setting – it was my own third visit to Africa that showed me round houses like these (at any rate, ones that were not built for tourists). “We all know” too readily what Africa is like: it is Kenya, and in Kenya it is a rural Kenya. In setting a story in a place the reader will recognise, the danger is that familiar is also uncontested and over-generalised.

To move for a moment to “adult lit,” this is what makes a book like Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest an intersting read (and I really should stress it is for adults). When she retells Red Riding Hood she begins

Once upon a time there was a man who lived all alone in the forest

and we are intrigued. “That’s not how it starts,” we might think, but we press on, up a rough track until we come (actually in the next sentences) to

He worked in the forest, tree felling, track filling, ditch digging, and deer killing. Power saw and rifle.

Sara Maitland, November: Kielder Forest , Gossip from the Forest Ch 9

In other words, this is the Story of the Woodcutter set in Maitland’s Kielder Forest section, and a bleak retelling it is. However what it does – what the book attempts – it to wake the sleeping wood into being a repository for stories, in particular women’s stories. Now this is an adult example without illustrations, but we might look at other books and ask What is the author/illustrator trying to wake in us about landscape? It might be that the very traditional setting of Janet and Allan Ahlberg is itself a parody trying to provoke – to wake up a sense of fun (Jeremiah in the Dark Woods does precisely that, I think, and the question I have raised before is the kind of challenge it brings: Do they all live in the same wood?). And if it wakes a sense of fun, it might also provoke a question: Does it have to be like that? Or a set of questions: Does Goldilocks need to find that kind of cottage, does Sleeping Beauty have to be blonde, does Red Riding Hood need a woodcutter? The stuff of the classroom discussion, and the problem of “using” children’s literature (see this from a couple of years ago).

We are into the difficult challenge posed by Jacqueline Rose:

Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence and skills.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.

Is she at loggerheads with Phillip Pullman when he states

But fiction doesn’t merely enteratin – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together…

Phillip Pullman: Balloon Debate “Why Fiction is Valuable” in Daemon Voices

or am I trying to set them in opposition? I understand what Rose is saying about the confining of literature to the pedagogic practices of the classroom and I take her point about the danger of differing modes of representation between play and a “canon” of children’s literature, I am unsure about the dichotomy she stresses where “rhythm and play” and “narrative fiction” are worlds apart. Indeed, I think play and storytelling have a lot in common even when we are not specifically looking at or engaged in the kind of role-play or dramatic play that might begin “I’ll be the dragon and you be the swamp monster.” [Yes that reference is intentional: read the article {abstract here} if only because it is the best title for an academic article ever!] One of the things they have in common is what Pullman describes above: the intimate relationship between humanity and action. But a step behind that is another commonality: the slipperiness of their language, and how in writing about play and story we are very quickly drawn to using imagery and metaphor.

Here, for example, is Pullman (in my opinion) at his bardic finest:

…Most of all, stories give delight….They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral…In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper – and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to because if you did, you’d only turn around to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came…another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

So I return to a word I explored recently: delight and to Bruner’s notion that deep play is playing with fire. Defining a pedagogy of play is this kind of dangerous activity. Are we talking here about how adults can justify something they feel is uncomfortably out of their control? Or moving fun activities up a few notches in status so that there is an entertainment aspect to the input adults make?

Sue Rogers puts it well – so well that I would suggest you, dear Reader, look at her whole chapter Powerful Pedagogies and Playful Resistance in Brooker and Edwards’ Engaging Play, of which the following is a quick highlight:

Two distinct positions are suggested…: first that play is viewed as the undisciplined activity of young children. Thus schools and other early childhood institutions are designed to control and sanitise play so that it reflects adult views of what is good play/bad play. Second, that play is viewed as less important than other activities in classrooms because of the way it is positioned at the margins of what counts as real and necessary activity…

Set against this, opportunities for social pretend play offered children the possibilities to explore identities within their relationships with others and in the process of navigating the dominant pedagogical practices of their classrooms. These identities are not fixed but rather shift with particular play events and social groupings.

Sue Rogers in Engaging Play

Let’s get back outside. Story – and its pull of delight, much the same as play – offer those possibilities to explore identities. That is not to say that they have to be Bibles moralisées, or the instructional tales of early books aimed at children, or even stories with what Jacqueline Rose calls the invisible adult directing the moral purpose, but that there is, in the pull of delight, a need for the familiar reference point as a jumping off into a different world, a different set of speculations. Is Tulip up her tree? Any old tree? What might a tree stand for (I am restraining myslef from more than a link to poor old Vladimir and Estragon and their tree but I found this enlightening) – a useful resource in a forest or a menace from a family history in an ornamental garden? What is life like for the woodcutter – Sara Maitland’s or another storyteller’s? What is life like for Mrs Oldknow when Tolly is gone? The questions – sorry if this sounds fanciful – branch out all over the place, and we have no immediately clear idea, no schema to attach them to. As I have mentioned before, Bettelheim asks What is the kingdom which many fairy tale heroes gain at the story’s end? The ambiguity of this kingdom requires an imaginative leap. In the stories I started with – the anarchic Tulip, the distraught Polly, the girl and her grandfather in the woods – there is always a possibility for this leap beyond the story, but perhaps it is strengthened by the elements of familiarity in a story’s setting: it is like the stepping stone from which the reader can launch themselves into the unfamiliar. For any of us who approach children’s literature with a critical eye, some element of topoanalysis is a vital, enlivening and enriching experience – whether we are booksellers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers, outdoor instructors: yes, and even grandads who take a walk in the woods with the children.

Sort of footnote: Simon James records that His ideal day out is trekking with The Adventurers (four children he knows and who feature in his book Days Like This) wading through streams – with rucksacks full of chocolate. Sarah Garland, until her change of style and pace with Azzi in Between, wrote and drew in locations largely reflecting her experiences in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.

Bowstrings

August. Not the month before September: August in its own right.

Some notable feast days – this week the Transfiguration, for example, but Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta, the Assumption, Maximilian Kolbe… – and for many in Europe at least a bit of downtime. Time to ignore the calls for educators to work all the hours they may rather than all the hours of their contract, or time to be judicious in the ways in which “given time” (the current generation’s version of feudal and post-feudal Boon Days?) is used or asked for.

We were living in something of a fevered state even before COVID overtook us: political instability; work-life balance skewed; worries about aspirations versus income; climate change and our need to fly, to drive, for the cheap T-shirt… “This is the world we built: congratulations.” And while Lockdown has calmed some of that, at a price, even before we count the deaths, the sorrow, there remains uncertainty, financial hardship… and the urge in education and outside it to drive the workforce on: Do more! Do More! Prove yourselves! Even if it’s only to show how much better you are than the old you.

The desert monastics of the C4th have an answer for so much, as Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes so brilliantly explores, and this one is for just such an occasion:

A hunter happened to come by and saw Antony talking in a relaxed way with the brothers, and he was shocked. The hermit wanted to show him how we should sometimes be less austere for the sake of the brothers, and said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.’ He did so, and Antony said, ‘Draw it further’ and he drew it further. He said again, ‘Draw it yet further,’ and he drew it some more. Then the hunter said to him, ‘If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.’ Antony answered, ‘So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the brothers quickly become exhausted. It is sometimes best not to be rigid.’ 

https://erenow.net/common/the-desert-fathers/11.php Benedicta Ward The Desert Fathers

The great inspiration for the move to the desert, Abba Antony meets an outsider: tellingly this is a hunter, someone who has strategy, drive, all the things that make us want to do more. Antony uses the man’s bow as his own example of why the relentless pursuit is unhelpful. Draw the bowstring too far, tighten the tension in life and we risk being unable to accomplish the very things we set out to do.

Cello lessons, Judo Club, Choir, Art Club – and get that mindset improved, kids; a better running time for me, aquazumbaboxercise into another great weekend, the emptily competitive Great British Make Something Brilliant programme, draw up your complex plans for the micromanaged student experience (or risk the vilification of pundits): we have an urge to be better at everything all the time. Time to do that, to be dedicated and wholehearted, is certainly part of the life of all of us, and we have to say an important part of our professional or family life. Even those men and women whose lives were contained by psalms and basket weaving and silence felt that pull: but there are times to stop too. I wonder if sometimes our – my – urge to self-improvement is a sort of running away in itself.

As Williams puts it, the fear is that What you thought mattered – i.e. what you thought was truest to the Real You – turns out to be empty and dishonest... and hitting the Twitter nail on its twitty head in particular Self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to carrying it. In the end we have to stop sometimes, put down those burdens, because we cannot run forever – for something or from something – without exhaustion.

But here’s the rub: sometimes our leisure thing is an escape from other tensions and becomes, in turn another net for us to stumble into. The trick (I’m ditching the “us:” for me) is not letting that activity become a chance to run away from something else, and worse still not to spend my time telling myself how successful I am at it.

And this brings me back to my post from the initial weeks of lockdown, and this story of Abba Macarius:

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.

Whispers of Living

Or: Whose Voice in Nature Writing?

When a writer – fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry – identifies closely with a place or event in the natural world, a number of possibilities are open to them, from distant observer to intimate dialogue. They are often trying to reach into the dearest freshness deep down things, as Hopkins has it.

Sometimes there are attempts to understand and even to communicate. Bob Gilbert’s programme about Susurration is a joy: like Fiona Stafford‘s magisterial exploration of the Long, Long Life of Trees, it gives an account of the relationship between humans and plants, and looks at how listening to trees gives insights into their lives. Between them, they produce a vision of woodland that helps answer some of the deep ecological questions about reading a landscape, and prompt me to think especially about the imperilled landscapes as we face global warming, the threat of extinction…

The traveller or writer on landscape is “The I that is the Eye:” observer and commentator. Think of the vivid writing and passion of George Monbiot in Feral:

The squall passed suddenly and the sun slashed through the sky, almost violent, its intensity somwhow heightened by the coldness of my skin, as if, frozen hard, I could no longer absorb the concussion of light.

George Monbiot, Feral

or the poignant, almost despairing reflections of Peter Feinnes:

And I am wondering, do beavers foul their own nests? Do they knock down their own houses, obliterate their woods, poison their own land? And if they don’t, what does that say about us? Put it this way: if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? How close to somewhere do you have to live before you feel inclined to look after it?

Peter Feinnes, Oak and Ask and Thorn

Looking at fiction, the Man in Garner’s Boneland faces similar deaths, cultural and at a species level, with his woman and child dead, as he explains:

No one is left to hold. No child to teach. I am alone. After me, no one will give my flesh to the sky, take my bones to the nooks of the dead. The sun will not come back. The Stone Spirit will not send eagles. The world will end.

Alan Garner: Boneland.

I was starting to think about Alan Garner – never far from my mind, and the header to this blog reminds me whenever I log on – because of a challenge to identify stories in which landscape is the narrator, which brought me straight back to Garner and the sentient landscape. And if Garner, then I am already departing from the original challenge, by thinking Boneland and Thursbitch. In neither is the landscape – and even defining that would take a while – the narrator, but it is a slow and not-quite-visible agent. And therefore capable of siding with one or another action? Or working so slowly but the glacial power that our lives are shaped by its inexorability.

First person narrator. In poetry it has a long tradition, from Riddles to out and out personification. Whitman questions the soft-falling shower and imagines it answering him in The Voice of the Rain (very apt for today, a wet Monday morning). Cruelly (and comically) satirised by Geoffrey Willans, Tennyson’s The Brook was however the first that came to my mind: here the poem and its parody get a mention from Alison Flood on reciting poetry by heart, with its repeating lines

For men may come and men may go, 
But I go on for ever. 

Except that “forever” is a long time, even for Ents, Tolkein’s spokesmen [sic] for the natural world, whose wrath against Saruman’s ecocide is such a turning-point in the Lord of the Rings. Lewis, too, uses the tree as symbol of nature: in The Last Battle the death of the dryad is the atrocity that starts the action. The warning of industrialised destruction in Lord of the Rings and Narnia has a voice – but still not quite the narrator I was seeking. While Jane Carroll (I have discussed this aspect of her work here) sees the ruin as a place with a past and a present – but also a future – I think I am beginning to have to see that future extending certainly beyond me, but also beyond humanity.

Whispers of living, echoes of warning,

Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning.

Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein Mass

{An aside: I find I had completely misremembered The Ruin, that very odd old English lament for a culture the invading tribes had themselves destroyed, in that I had it placed as a first-person lament when actually it is closer to the Lamentations of Jeremiah:

Beorht wæron burgræced….

Crungon walo wide..

Bright were the halls….

Slaughter spread wide….

I wonder whether this misremembering was because of my need to think of the Ruin as a particularly affective piece of writing.}

It seems to me – and I know Jane Carroll is thinking about this herself at the moment – that I need to distinguish between various tangles of nature writing. So here are my first thoughts: five strands.

  • Aetiological storytelling;
  • Writing in which place is key to the development of plot or argument;
  • Brilliant and affective writing about place;
  • Story in which “landscape” (or, in a kind of metonymy, a creature in the landscape) tells its story;
  • Story in which “landscape” is personified.

Examples of the first three (yes, they move around between them, and are in any case contestable) might be:

At this point I almost want to compile an anthology: I hope my avoiding links to bookselling sites &c will allow anyone reading this to follow more reflective writing.

But I am still left with these last two. Have I just been shuffling round, trying to avoid them?

Well, the final one does have me stumped. The Overstory comes close, with the interactions between trees and humans having at once abstract and a biochemical connections – but even here it is the humans who are the principal focus. In the same way, in The Secret Garden, the locked and rediscovered garden calls (in the person of the robin) to Mary, and she – and Colin – are transformed by its reawakening, but the humans remain centre-stage. In Prince Caspian, the awakening forces of nature likewise interact with the humans and respond to the divine grace of Aslan, but while they are agents, they are none of them protagonists. So (apart from the examples below) I draw a blank.

The penultimate category was suggested to me by re-reading Rob Cowen’s account of an eye-to-eye meeting with a deer, in which he imagines himself into the deer, standing for every hunted deer of the past and as a commentator on the world in which it lives:

I feel my heart quicken, thump, and prepare for flight. Snorting to clear wet nostrils, I stand and breathe, pulling air into my lungs to determine direction, but I find only the clean, safe scents of the forest again. Things are restored.

Rob Cowen “DNA” in Common Ground

In writing for (and maybe with) children, first person narration can occur in similar ways: I am the Seed (the trailer here is lovely) has the narration in a particular tree-seed, but not every poem in this marvellous collection does the same, and this is not the landscape as a broader concept, rather a single tree standing for a landscape. Powerful writing – but short and focussed, not sustained. Perhaps Tennyson’s Brook and Whitman’s Rain succeed because the movement of water is itself a quick thing for the eye to focus on; immediately dynamic, not of massive, tectonic slowness?

*

Why do I keep coming back to extinction? At a simple, personal level it’s because I feel my mortality keenly in these days of pandemic. But in the Lit Crit I see it in so much of the material I have thought of as “brilliant and affective writing about place:” the fragility of the human presence in the walnut forests in Deakin’s Wildwood; the postscript to Macfarlane’s Landmarks; the trees making connections and spurring the humans to action in The Overstory. These are not written as a message from nature in its own words, but words explicitly by good human writers acting as advocates, reading the signs of the times and warning us as surely as Old Testament prophets.

Because the voice of the landscape is unimaginably distant and immanent, all at once. Is it merely a personification, a trick of perception, of how we see this connection or that rock shape, some sort of pareidolia to help us discern a place, a role, a meaning? Is it a different tack on the same pathway that gave us Sky Gods, talking/spirit animals, Green Knights?

I started out with the intention of finding fiction in which the landscape is in some way a character – I’ll keep it as vague as that. I don’t think I managed it. However I seem to have ended up thinking about some kind of End Times for the Anthropocene. I am conscious that some of the predictions about the end of Homo sapiens might mean that “nature” (however we define it) will outlast us, those oak trees that are weeds in odd corners may be here when there are no humans to admire or curse them. What value then, does our pareidolia/anthropomorphism have, if any? It seems a little pathetic: we cannot own the post-human in any way other than by “being good ancestors” and if these tricks of the light spur us on to that, then so be it.