It is hugely tempting to fill a blog that I’ve given headings like this with photos of holidays and trips I have had. Ruins I have visited, cities I have met and loved. Let me get some out of the way.
It may give the impression I have seen all sorts of wonders all round the world but I am not really very well travelled: unlike my dad whose Moominpappa-like Misspent Youth included trips in the Merchant Navy to Japan, South Africa and all sorts of places, my furthest trips have been to the Gambia for work, and holidays in Europe. And yet for some people this is a lot of travelling: my Mum saw France, but no further, and for some, finance or responsibilities or fear of flying put journeys out of reach. For nearly twenty years – as a young dad – I didn’t have a current passport.
So when I see the suggestion that people need or deserve a holiday abroad I can’t help but baulk at the idea. It’s not the air miles and pollution, although that does worry me increasingly (and I do like trains anyway: waking up on the train to Provence to see a field of sunflowers was as amazing, in its way, as the romance of Paris in the early morning after the Nuit Blanche trip on ferry and train from Victoria in the 70s). No, it’s not even the “Bali or Brighton” divide: I think its the notion of deserving something or needing it being confused with wanting something very badly or having your expectations denied. “You can’t have that wish” is something we find alien to our mindset – although in a not-so-distant-past it is a recurring response to Little Bear‘s wishes.
So I’ve wandered (rather aimlessly) through some of the literature on desert – starting from the ideas of “deserving degrees” – and came across this, very much off my usual track:
It may simply be the folly of the gods, to make us act out for one another, for their amusement, when ultimately little is accomplished…Whether in our conjugal relations, our political systems, our commercial interactions, even in our cultivation of art and science, there is illusion and deception
Kevin Hoover in Copp, D., & Sobel, D. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other
And perhaps that “acting out” is really the key to the problem. As George MacDonald puts it – or rather how C S Lewis in the mouth of MacDonald puts it:
There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self- Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.’
C S Lewis, The Great Divorce
In other words, we are keen to say we need and deserve in order to grandstand our desires; we would choose unhappiness as a lever to get what we want. It is caricatured in the anonymous ditty
Is very ill
And nothing will improve her.
Until she sees
And waddles through the Louvre.
But often it is an illusion. This isn’t about help when someone is physically or mentally ill, but I think we have to see that Madam Dill does not need her trip to Paris any more than this pundit or that feels anything more serious than serious disappointment when they cannot get to their favourite quaiside taverna. I may (to come to my subtitle) love the very stones of Villeneuve lez Avignon and be sad not to see them, but we deceive ourselves by thinking that this disappointment is something the cosmos has engineered to rob us of our rights. We might find some balm by visiting our places of significance, from the pub for a pint onwards, but I suspect that in many cases this is not the same as desiring them fervently. Lockdown in COVID times has heightened some of my needs and wishes to almost silly levels, and I do really miss my friends, my family, some amazing places I had planned to see this year – but I have to recognise that somewhere in my “I want it very badly” is just “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick” – and while the lack makes me sad, I am not likely in all honesty to be able to say “I deserve…”
So to conclude, and maybe to cheer me up, are some places of significance – I won’t embarrass anyone by putting people – that I do want to see really badly at the moment. Here is the Firth of Forth, all flat sands and rock pools and Eiders, a place (and people) I associate with freedom and quiet and love.
Or – and these last two are no surprise if you have followed my journeys at all – that I have to include as places that mean a lot to me, the Tors in the Cheshire borderlands, and that Monreale-like face in the rocks at Ludchurch.
I was up early this morning; I ran out of sleep in the way that you might finish a cup of tea: just like an empty cup with no more tea to drink, there was no more sleep to be had. I went for a walk, listening to the birds doing the Me-Me-Me of the Dawn Chorus, and came home to read Morning Prayer and some Mary Oliver – her Morning Poem with its wonderful imagery:
if your spirit carries within it
the thorn that is heavier than lead– if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging–
there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted
Mary Oliver, Morning Poem
And so I can start with her challenge to dare to be happy, and with it, for this Earth Day season, come the Edgelands wood bluebells and ransoms and the warming days I turned to a couple of years ago in the singing of James Taylor and his praise of May:
Yes the winter was bitter and long
So the spring’ll be sweet
Come along with a rhythm and a song
Watch creation repeat.
When I blogged that quotation I had, of course, no idea about how bitter and long the next winter, 2020/21, was to be even though, as I said then, lyrics alone don’t cut it.
And they still don’t: the jolly springtime needs humanity to think of itself differently, to act differently. On my walk today I traced where I think a development has marked out cutting through the wood. Trees will be felled, birds displaced. The wood used to have foxes; I don’t see them any more. Will the owls survive? I did have a magical trudge this morning, watching the light broaden but hearing also the growing rumble of traffic. I came home and read Mary Oliver and all her prophetic acceptance of a natural world of lilies and ponds and rising light, and (to cite another of her poems) willing myself to
Tell about it.
Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”
But as well as the world outside the study door, there are ways in which spring creeps over the windowsill – notably for this blog post the depictions of spring in children’s literature. Most recently Scallywag Press have sent me some corkers: Rob Ramsden and Antoinette Portis to add to a collection of books exploring “nature” in a very particular way, one that is written in big letters in Lent and Easter, in the changing season that is Spring.
Rob Ramsden’s three books with Scallywag are a joy: a simple text, some bright, flat illustrations of a couple of children in the outdoors beaming with delight as the seed grows, puzzling over the green pumpkin, sad as the sunflower dies, scared of the bee – and I must say that the simple shapes of Rob’s children are wonderful, a brilliant evocation of young children’s body language… There is a beautiful, plain honesty about the stories in all three books.
As with her book Hey, Water (that I’ve commented on here) Portis’ A New Green Day – another Scallywag triumph – is something different. The design is delightfully tricky, almost a set of simple riddles (“says mud” comes on the page after the gnomic statement from Mud; the picture is a puzzle of eight muddy feet; “says night” on a sky full of stars above muted rooftops after night’s proclamation that it is the black coat slipped around Earth’s shoulders – and the next phrase the engine of the summer dark belongs to the cricket… The reader has to turn from recto to verso to get the sense of the mud, the night, the cricket – or the shadow, tadpole…)
We turn the page for the answer – and as we go through the book, the day turns too. The comma in the long, long sentence of the stream becomes the tadpole.
It feels a bit like the reveal when we go down to see the ponds in the Lye Valley – this is where they should be : yes! And there are the tadpoles, the wrigglers, the punctuation of water in the ponds of the fen, the promise of summer, and hence of another spring. The life that continues its cycle comforts not only because it suggests there will be frogs, but that there will be the other things about spring too: blossom; greening leaves; fledgling robins. We look, in this time of pestilence, for a resumption, maybe even more than a redemption or a resurrection.
I have celebrated the re-opening of bookshops by going down the hill to Blackwells and buying some more: What did the Tree See? tracing the life of an oak from seedling to senescence and into a new generation, and Fox: A Circle of Life Story, which also looks at the life-after-life of a fox’s body and the continuation of the fox in the cubs in the woods…
The dramatic car accident scene in Fox is not the end, and the picture above moves into a sort of symbolism as the family are looking for (and not seeing?) a fox – a new fox – disappear into the woods – we are shown a pretty all-encompassing circle of life. Few punches are pulled on the decomposition of the fox (although if you’ve ever smelled a dead fox you will be glad this book is not a scratch-and-sniff text!) and even the insouciance of the surviving cubs who carry on playing. No anthropomorphism here.
There is a slow drama where the reader is asked to see several things at once in What did the Tree See? We watch the tree grow and grow old, but over its shoulder, if you like, we see a bay colonised by humans over a millennium: trees give way to settlement by humans; transport changes. There is an oblique anthropomorphism here: the tree itself is the first-person narrator, through the whole thousand years. The ending, however, is remarkably similar (if we ignore the plainly non-fiction section at the end): a jay drops an acorn, and we are invited to think “What will it see?” The cycle – we are invited to believe – continues.
So where have I wandered off to in this magic wood? Why is all this about spring? Well, partly because the one thing all these books have is that the magic is earthy, real change and growth walk hand-in-hand with old age and death. Rob Ramsden’s characters face the cycle with the seeds of sunflower and pumpkin; we are invited with Antoinette Portis to turn the pages and thus to turn the day; with Guillain and Usher, with Thomas and Egnéus we may see two different lives, but the short-lived fox and the ancient oak also have a message: the wheel keeps turning. We must hope, and pray and work that it will.
When the Catholic liturgy describes one particular tree – perhaps it needs an upper-case T – it is notable that it is described in very positive terms: fidelis, nobilis, dulce lignum. Faithful, noble, a sweet wood. In the great C6th hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, the cross, Roman instrument of shameful execution, is turned into something of beauty. The shame of imperial Rome, the curse of Deuteronomy, the paradox of Pauline theology are seen in the context of the good thing these pieces of wood have done. The poem Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis Sing, tongue about the the battle, of the glorious struggle places this tree sola digna, the only worthy one, uncomfortably side by side the images of torture. Far enough in time from the grim reality of the cross, Venantius brilliantly uses the repeated dulcis – sweet – to apply to what later writers call the Instruments of the Passion and to the body of Jesus: sweet iron, sweet wood, a sweet burden. The poet is writing in praise of this particular wood as part of the cult of the Holy Cross: crudely put, we might see this as an advert for the cross whose veneration he is proposing.
When Psalm 95 (or 96 in some versions) suggests a primacy for the God presented in the books of the Faiths of the Book, it bursts its banks towards the end, and the poet pictures a world where the heavens and the earth, the field and the woods, are alive with joy. It is part of that same thread of nature poetry that runs through these songs, perhaps too often missed because of the overlying themes of later exegesis. I have discussed this with another psalm here. I sometimes wonder whether we miss a big idea when ignore these great Biblical bursts of exuberant delight in the natural world, although other poets do well with the vision of the warmer days (often a little later than early April) and the trees in blossom, from Sumer is i-cumen in through to the pastoral lute songs and madrigals of the C16th. Time spent cooped up when blood is nipp’d is more or less over: a time to be liberated from close supervision, from chores and obligations is here. I look up from my typing just now at the (of course, wisely still bare) ash tree in the garden and am reminded of Peter Fiennes’s comment:
The ash is one of nature’s friendliest trees – its Latin name Fraxinus excelsior is a shout of joy and wonder.
P Fiennes “A river runs through it” in Oak and Ash and Thorn
A chill, bright day in Shotover on Easter Monday echoed that and shout – and if the ash is not yet up to budburst, many of the other trees of the wood are awake and rejoicing. Where I had been sitting on my birthday in February is beginning to dapple with light coming through honeysuckle and hazel; cherry and blackthorn are shining with new blossom. The sky is a clear blue. April, chill but bright, is here.
Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.
With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .
Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.
We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.
But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”
…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.
Canticle of the Creatures
The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.
Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space betweenthem, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.
So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.
I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…
The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart
And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.
First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?
Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.
There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?
By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.
The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.
So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?
The very sky no longer high
Comes down within the reach of all.
John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)
So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?
Jim Crumley again:
If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…
An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.
A foot stamps.
You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.
The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus
Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:
She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.
Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us.
Mary Oliver: Snow Geese
I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.
It might be that at some point I write about worms as mythic beasts, maybe dragons, or the pull of the Lambton legend, or its folkloric influences, or (as I have before) about Mayne’s retelling. This is not that post; this is a brief reflection on worms on my allotment.
Thanks to a colleague of Maggie’s we have some generous piles of muck ripening on the plot. Turn but a spade and start a wriggling congregation of worms, working away in the wet bins this poo is in, and from time to time I move some manure (and worms) into the compost bins or to round the rhubarb or the fruit trees, or wherever. It feels good to help the soil and the plants along, and the worms do their bit, eating their decaying organic surrounding (and by the way, this isn’t an advice piece on wormeries: check out the RHS or someone) and helping turn rather odd claggy and sandy soil into the stuff that gives us pumpkins and potatoes,
And there I have it: helping. I have phrased this in such a way as to making these co-habitants appear to be working with us to produce something for our consumption – yet really I am using the same material they are, and profiting from their industry.
This isn’t a plea for a kind of extreme pro-animal gardening in which I avoid using any animals’ processes to better my plot, my enjoyment, my diet. I am aware, with the poet Anne Stevenson that lost to the angels, it appears/We share with rats and fleas a murky source. Acknowledging this, I find worms fascinating in what they do and how they live (look at this for guidance in schools, again from RHS, or this, from the Earthworm Society of Britain) yet as I dug, and spread, and mixed I did wonder: if it freezes tonight will I have harmed the worms? That writhing pink mass that got distributed to the new rhubarb and the goosegogs: was it some wormy gathering I broke up, a striving for mating, even in some sort a family? And the robin on the plot, and the corvids in the trees – will they profit from my digging at the expense of these worms? At home the chickens will slurp up a worm they find like a child attacks spaghetti.
So I dig and spread. The robin keeps an eye on what it can have when I am gone. The blackbird too is carefully noting what I am up to. The jackdaws (and even the raven, I think) patrol the allotments for what they might have. The worms are our – what? Helpers? Coworkers? Victims?
And if I think that at least my warming compost and sticky middens are a nice place for these creatures, what does that mean? I am not farming them, keeping them there to break up my manure (well, not my manure, but you know what I mean, I hope); they simply arrive in a way that makes me see the plausibility of spontaneous generation, and I am profiting from it, using their consumption to make better compost, to enrich my soil, feed me. Me, me me, mine, mine mine. Maybe it is this framing that shows how lost to the angels I am.
Our plaited genes mean nothing to the spheres;
contingency, not prayer, will plot your course.
Anne Stevenson, To Phoebe (at five months)
I can’t leave it there. Even in a wormy pile of farmyard clearings, there is much more than this. A history of hunter gatherers bettering themselves, of birds pecking and cows shitting: as Hopkins sees it, a rich pattern of everything that is swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. Anne Stevenson, too, is aware of the to-and-fro of divinity and the secular (in part what Andrew Wright, in moving towards a definition of spirituality calls the mind-matter dualism that shapes our struggle for meaning) and bringsit out wonderfully:
I took with me one of the books I was given as a present: Qing Li’s Into the Forest, (pictured above, left). This is a well-produced and scholarly look at Shinrin-Yoku, Forest Bathing – and this blog post is, in part, a response to the book and the practices it affirms. Qing Li is an epidemiologist in Japan, and the book is at once a toe-in-the-water popular account of the research, and a “how-to” guide to a practice of which Dr Li is a major proponent. Oh yes, in the West it’s a fad perhaps, and, at its lightest, simply a wish-list of mindfulness practices in nice places, but its underlying messages are worth consideration – the kind of thing I clumsily contemplated back in 2018. For example, here (p121) are Qing Li’s proposals for engaging the senses:
Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees
Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches
Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural therapy of phytoncides
Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths
Place your hands on the trunk of the tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground
Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness
And here I was on my birthday with a walking pole – a bare, stout stick – in a sunny, chilly local wood. A raven kronks and kaarks overhead. I sit by a brook and watch a robin. A muntjac comes up to me and then, suddenly spooked, disappears into the bushes and bracken. What did I go out into the wilderness to see?
I didn’t go out to see the beautiful photography that genuinely enriches this book (so much so that I sent it to my rather immobile and certainly locked-down dad). I know Shotover, I know Oxfordshire in winter when blood is nipp’d and ways be foul; this is not the hinoki tree, or the Sagano bamboo forest in the book – or the massive stands of bamboo we met while in Montpellier on holiday. This isn’t a criticism of the book, which has, I know, to have a wider appeal that just to me – but its gorgeous photographs of forests and leaves and sky make me wonder about the woodlands we have access to here in southern England in winter.
Connection to people may well be part of the human condition, and certainly forms part of what I would think of as my own experience of spirituality (I look back at this post and see how it is crammed with names) but on my birthday I spent time alone, not fretting over tasks to be done, or mooning over missed friends or thinking of crass mistakes and mishaps of the past. It was as if my present to myself, or maybe my present from Maggie (who gave me the Into the Forest book) was an opportunity to look over the shoulders of these concerns. I’m aware of the human activity around me, aware of what human activity there has been in the past, but today it’s about hearing the leaves. It’s not even remotely transcendent: it’s just leaves and robins.
As Qing Li puts it,
The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think… In the forest we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.
Into the Forest, p166.
Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is worth citing here, both from the 1989 book The Experience of Nature she and Steven Kaplan wrote, and from other writers looking at their work such as this readable little introduction. I explored it here in a blog post just as my last year at Brookes was coming to a close. To relieve the overburdening experiences of desk bound, urban life, “mental fatigue,” she recommends being engrossed in the environment, purposeful exploration and a real sense of “being away.” It is remarkably similar to the Japanese movement – but again, can we truly escape in suburban Britain? The wood I was in, Brasenose Wood, at the foot of Shotover, has a constant thrum of traffic from the Oxford ring road, and although it is possible to screen it out, doing so is an extra task.
The trees were so grey it made the greens of mosses stand out as if they were lit from within; the sky, when it is blue, is likewise full of light, and on my birthday, it was like Inchbold’s Study in March. As the recent snow melted the trickles were everywhere. At my first stop, I listened under the traffic burr to the water, the robins, a kite high up in the sky. The increased quiet as I went further up and further in (the reference is to C S Lewis) was obvious. The high trees moved and rattled in the wind. On Shotover I am not away in a wilderness miles wide, but making the Edgelands a place where at least some of this escape is possible.
This (rather image-heavy) post is principally for ‘my’ undergraduates in Outdoor Learning and for the MA students in Children’s Literature through the ages. For this reason, although it jumps about a bit, it essentially is trying to cover ground they may (or let’s face it may very well not) find useful. Covering ground: metaphor already. At any rate the two modules each have their own concerns about the relationship between literature and place.
Perhaps I should start with a quick run-down of some maps I can lay my hands on easily: Lewis (Baynes), Tolkien and Le Guin, the sources being my Puffin Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my paperback of The Two Towers and (because the representation of Earthsea I have is over the gutter of an endpaper) Ursula K Le Guin’s Estate website. They are all of places in fantasy literature, but that’s just because I’m reading Le Guin at the moment; one of my favourites ends this post. Maybe, as Simon Schama invites us to see the ghostly outline of an old landscape beneath the superficial coverings of the contemporary (Landscape and memory, p16), the maps of fantasy worlds also invite us to look at our own world.
Maps have been discussed as an important part of the writing and reading processes for all sorts of authors – here is Tolkien’s famous dictum on the subject – but I want to think about what they do in a story. Sometimes, as in Watership Down they build a sense of reality – Watership Down being a good case, a story built around a real place; we might also consider the Antarctica of Shackleton’s expedition (another real place) or Katie Morag’s only-just-fictional home island of Struay. Thorin’s map in The Hobbit stands as a way of telling us about the lie of the land, gives Tolkien – through Gandalf and the dwarves – some reason for plot exposition as it is explained to Bilbo, and is the map they use to find a way into the Lonely Mountain. We might also recognise that the absence of a map – as in Garner’s Thursbitch (my comment on maps is here) or The Owl Service – sometimes has a hand in enhancing the mystery. But perhaps Garner is a digression.
Do what do maps do in stories? They are sometimes there to anchor the storytelling for the readers – to show us, if not Frodo, the way to Mordor; to show us, if not Hazel, a Kehaar’s-eye view of the Downs. They are also props in the story: Pauline Baynes’ map of the Lone Islands in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a nautical map to roll out on a table. And beyond this are illustrations such as William Grill’s maps in Shackleton’s Journey, integral to the reader’s understanding of the routes and the perils along it.
Maps of a real or fictional place cannot replace entirely the narrator’s skill, any more than a writer can describe a landscape with the overlapping details of, say an OS map, without an exhaustive set of appendices or digressions. Ursual Le Guin’s own line is revealing:
Its use to me was practical. A navigator needs a chart. As my characters sailed about, I needed to know how far apart the islands lay…
and she poses herself the key questions for her conjuring Earthsea;
What island lay farthest to the west. Selidor. Look at Havnor: big enough that there might be people living inland who’d never seen the sea. What sort of magic did they really do in Paln? What about the big Kargish land of Hur-at-Hur, way out there as far east as Astowell and quite unknown to the Archipelgans – were there ever dragons there?
U K Le Guin “The Books of Earthsea:” Introduction
For le Guin the map provides the shelves on which the stories will grow, like in a greenhouse. We follow her about as she follows her characters. What is it like, this place?
But sometimes it is left to the critic to put flesh on the bones of landscape – for example Chris Lovegrove and his work on (among other lands and universes) Joan Aiken’s world of Willoughby Chase. This doesn’t let the writer off the hook of course, so when the rabbits come to what will be their stronghold in Watership Down the map (see above) gives way to the desciption:
Now with his head pointing upwards [Hazel] found himself gazing at the ridge, as over the sky-line came the silent, moving, red-tinged cumuli…. He realised now they were almost on level ground. Indeed the slope was no more than gentle for some way back along the line by which they had come; but he had been preoccupied with the idea of danger and had not noticed the change. They were on the top of the down.
Richard Adams, Watership Down – ch 18: on Watership Down
And similarly, when the Dawn Treader sails towards the Lone Islands (do we need to pause here and think of the untold story of Narnian colonialism? Isthe story at all interesting, Mr Lewis?) the map serves to give us all an understanding of what can and what can’t be seen from the Governor’s residence when Caspian’s arrival threatens his position: it is, like Thorin’s map in The Hobbit, both a guide for us and a prop in the drama.
Sometimes – I would say very often – it’s not the bare narrative that needs them but the ethos of the world created. They are a kind of uber-illustration of the world of the story: they provoke question and exploration; they suggest a visit; they might provoke nostalgia. Le Guin’s Earthsea is such: an important extra in the telling of the story, illustrating distance, possible threat, possible alliances and cultural overlap: how close the dragons on Pendor are to little Low Torning is important in Wizard; their intrusion into the West Reach will return in the final book The Other Wind.
Maps of real places have a powerful pull – to visit, to return. It is their detail in part that powers up the nostalgia. Such is the power of a map that seeing Garland’s map in Henry and Fowler – which included the Nursery School my son had gone to to, close to where we had lived – was one of the tipping points that made us look at coming back to Oxford from Co Durham.
Pedagogically, fictional places with accompanying maps can allow a pause in the reading to explore, to ponder – a good map will have more than the simple route, but will invite the “what’s that?” “what if” questions that a text will propose in different ways.
Lastly, then, here are some slightly different Oxford images: Tenniel’s view of the chessboard landscape in Through the Looking Glass; floods in Christ Church meadow; the bridge from Friars’ Wharf to the Grandpont suburb of the city. The first two images (l-r) relate to Lewis Carroll’s storytelling. The fantasy of the Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass worlds is based around the eccentricities of people the Liddell children knew in Oxford; this first view is, I think, based on the chequerboard of small fields and dykes and ditches within a mile of Christ Church towards North Hinksey. The second is a flood on the marshy fields between Christ Church and the Thames – and in literary terms we can think of the floods in the Sheep Shop in Wool and Water, but also, now, of Malcolm’s eponymous little boat in La Belle Sauvage. The third – again, the Thames, in the area explored in many of the works of Sarah Garland – for our children’s journey into town this was always the Polly Puffin Bridge, after the illustration in Garland’s lost-and-found story set in the city.
And the final (huge) task is to ask a set of comparative questions about the relationship between map and illustration. Are illustrations – the Tenniel or the Garland here, for example, doing the same kind of job as a book-map? Are maps from a stricter cartographic discipline (such as OS Maps) doing a different job again? What does seeing the “real” place add to our appreciation of the author/illustrator’s work? I love Christ Church meadow in frost and flood and sun – but do I need to see it in photographic form or in real life to appreciate the strange chaos of the flood in the Sheep Shop? I sometimes want(ed) to say to crocodiles of tourists “This isn’t Hogwarts, really, you know” and “This isn’t really Wonderland.” And then I see that tourism is looking to show off the “real Hundred Acre Wood.” The rant would be a digression – and after all, what were we doing in Thursbitch or Ludchurch?
I think that depictions of South Oxford – the map from Henry and Fowler, the same towpath in Polly’s Puffin – give us detail both help with what Molly Bang in Picture This calls the emotional content of pictures, something which can be done in all sorts of ways, and which visual art, hand-in-hand with text (what Mat Tobin calls a symbiotic, fruitful relationship), does powerfully. Maps in fiction texts are a subtle, shifting part of this symbiosis: the mutual enrichment that works well in good quality fiction can go further when a map illustrates the place.
Oh enough: I’ll simply cite Mat’s blog here:
I always call on Maurice Sendak who said: ‘I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author has already illustrated with words’. A great picturebook is one in which the words and the pictures work together to tell the story but they never say the same thing.
…and end with the emotive map that has been at the back of my mind since I started writing this: Moominvalley. Even more than Milne and Shepard’s 100 Acre Wood Tove Jansson’s valley was a map for my play.
Or rather two projects for Advent that deal with two of the major Christmastide feasts, Epiphany and Candlemas. Yes, trees come down earlier every year (perhaps they went up earlier this year, too) and the foodfest came and went in a fog of tiers, but the Christmas story continues (as Chris Lovegrove attests) with festive decoration – and in the liturgy various bits of Infancy narrative – to end just before Lent.
Everything is out of sequence is preparing stuff: projects have their own timetables and participants, run-in time for one thing can be longer than for another. Turkeys are raised before Puddings are made, after all. So I’m going to describe these – ah, the wonders of word-processing – in the order that I did them, and then store this up for beyond Twelfth Night.
For we have found our Christ, our August Here in the zero days before Lent
And this is just some brief reflections and a link…
The podcast itself explains the Polonsky-Bodleian project looking at a multi-layered liturgical MS; watch it by all means. I can’t ask anyone to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” because it was precisely a drawing aside of a curtain that so disturbed and delighted me: the ‘singing teacher’ (I was so billed) with MS scholars and liturgists: Andrew Dunning and Henrike Laehnemann,
What did the participants learn? I can only speak for myself. The brief was to present chant in a manuscript for the people joining the podcast to get the feel of singing from an early source. Not hugely early, but different enough for people to get a feel of the medieval liturgy and its books. They/ we were aided and abetted by the setting and small schola in the dark of St Peter in the East, now part of St Edmund Hall in Oxford, but of course we couldn’t rely on that to do more than afford a quick look into the complexities of performance: here, Henrike’s expertise and clarity told the story of the manuscript and the meaning of the music, and Andrew’s understanding – and physical handling – of the manuscript (Bodleian Libraries MS. Lat liturg. e. 18) and MSS in general brought a high appreciation of the book, its most gothick embellishments being from the nineteenth century.
I look at the podcast and wish I didn’t wave my hands towards the camera quite so much, and wish I didn’t stumble and look down at my text so much either…
Is that what I learned? I learned about MS. Lat liturg. e. 18 and felt I got to grips with how MSS change use as well as context. This guide to the Cistercian ritual of a Provost and clergy, and the nuns and the people shows how difficult producing a liturgical text is, as if the text cannot quite reconcile itself to use by all sorts of people (compare an altar missal even in the newest editions with people’s missals). Even when a rough depiction of the medieval liturgy is the “private breakfast” (to use a phrase from the Reformation) of the celebrant, the needs and the participation of the wider church attendees demand attention. Henrike and Andrew were good at explaining this, setting the book in the history of its uses – and I found myself thinking of those MSS – books of devotion, books of hours, books with the list of the best indulgences near London – I wandered through in the 80s l, that I scathing joked about when they had this text or that, or something scribbled out. I spent too long on the crossword puzzle to see it was actually a biography. This December I learned again the living use of these books, and how that life meant change.
I also found how much I still knew, how much I had forgotten. Perhaps there is another page here for Books of Life and Death.
Journey of the Magi
T S Eliot recorded a sonorous, meditative – may I say parsonically dull? – rendition of one of his most famous shorter poems, John Gielgud gave it more blood if not more warmth (it is not a warm poem) and my good friend Roger Dalrymple asked me in November to join him and others in a version in which he would sew together lines read in various places and by various people. I was gobsmacked at being asked to join in, even more amazed to be asked to read the opening lines:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
Having been given these overture lines, I set about thinking how the poem should be introduced. I felt I was given the compere role: after all they set the theme, don’t they? Yes and no. It was a relief to hear that each participant brings to it their own voice; like a children’s Nativity, there are more kings than three (and why not?), and if I was freezing (I should have worn boots for early morning in a damp meadow) and the weather chill, well, that’s one king’s view. It might be argued that the whole thing should have been filmed in a Summer Santorini – or a ruined Syrian city – but this one king in a foggy field recalls and reinhabits the wintry cold to set the scene. And on reading the poem through for clues as to how to deliver those lines, I saw very starkly that it is the last line, not the first three, that provides the tone.
Gielgud’s petulant tone tells us how much the mage has lost as much as how much there is to gain in the Theophany – costing, as Eliot says elsewhere, not less than everything. So I am happy with my slightly moany start to the poem. Transport lets you down; plans change; it is not what you expected when you get there: the same kind of travel as anyone might have – until nearly half way through, when the feeling that this was all folly changes. In the Epiphany we look out over the dark fields – the little torches of lesser festivals almost lost in the dark – towards Lent and Easter.
…The lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight…
T S Eliot, Choruses from The Rock
How much of this year has seemed folly? How much more of this is there to do?
Preparing for the performance – selfishly not counting Roger’s editorial time and the other participants’ efforts – entailed a very close reading. I tried it first of all as recitation – almost as I might read a poem from Isaiah in Church. Maybe that was what Eliot was trying; it certainly didn’t work for me. So as I explained I went out and tried it a number of times in various ways – with me in camera, with the frosty sunrise on Warneford Meadow along the Old Road down from Shotover, in a chilly fog, without me to be seen. These were more successful, and I think this was because I wanted more than just “saying my lines” (more echoes of the Primary School Nativity) I looked at the whole poem, went back to Matthew’s Gospel, tried to see the white horse galloping, the gamblers. But the ones without me in perhaps were bloodless: the speaker was needed, just as Eliot’s rendition seems to me. I sent various copies to Roger for him to choose, and his choice works, I think. Working with Roger reminded me sharply of reading the speech from Gawain’s guide for the Wild Spaces Wild Magic group when we went up to the (possible) Green Chapel, and how the different translations – and for Roger the ME text – needed acting more than some kind of ecclesial declamation.
I found working with the T S Eliot so challenging and so revelatory – is the word fun permissible? – that I set about doing a version just for close friends of Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. All those long echoes… and the dear love of friends. Cooper’s poem, is much more like the secular Yule and, as this bleakest year dies, a warming message, hoping against hope, maybe…
Trying to pick common themes from my Christmas present gifts is a tall order, but with the title I have given this post, I have to start from Joe Shute and his book A Shadow Above, an account of ravens, the bird that, as the author says, embodies our best and worse impulses and symbolises our deepest fears. It is Joe’s book that takes me to the Sutcliff-like Iron Age and, taking in The Wanderer, to the mind- boggling archaeology of Danebury, where ritual mutilation and burial of ravens has been discovered:
Why did our ancestors choose to be buried alongside ravens? The theory now being suggested by a growing number of academics and archaeologists is that by placing ravens in these pits, they were offered up as gifts to the gods of the underworld… In a society where birds and animals were seen as a continuum of human life rather than as something existing alongside it, the ravens were there to perpetuate the existence of the human soul and be our companion and guide in the afterlife.
A Shadow Above, Ch 2: Bird of Omen
Ravens as corpse stealers, wisdom bringers, companions in death and scavengers of battle-fields bring me to Annie Dillard, the inescapable prophet of what it’s like to live alongside ‘nature.’
Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings in the skull…
The Abundance, One Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley
…the canary that sings in the skull, or the raven that sits on (in) the shoulder?
It is by pure coincidence that I chose to put my three ravens high up by my clavicle, a palpation (or less) away from the raven-like (or raven’s-beak-like) structure in the shoulder, but today, thanks to these two authors it strikes me as significant – we make a bony structure seem like a raven, I sit three ravens on my shoulder – and as Dougie Strang, standing on the mound Diarmaid’s Grave, proclaims in his essay in Antlers of Water
I’d no idea what lay beneath me. Stories attach themselves to ancient sites, building layers of meaning that aren’t always consistent with the archaeology. The mound at Cunside is ambiguous: it might be the remains of a Bronze Age cairn, or the graver of a Viking raider who sailed up the Kyle, or simply a pile of stones, cleared from the infield byu early settlers. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that those who lived at Cunside knew that this was Diarmaid’s grave and that his story put them in their place.
Dougie Strang, Diarmaid’s Grave, in Antlers of Water, ed Kathleen Jamie
and I wonder about that raven in my shoulder, another bump in the landscape that carries a story, a symbol. We make patterns, we explain, we tell stories – and maybe we tell stories about our bodies like we tell stories about our land, our past. The Highland grave of a long-gone hero, looming over Christmastide Bethlehem and the green shadows of Ludchurch and Gawain… travel writing, nature writing, spiritual writing: stories in a time of lockdown…
At once I am relying again on the contemplative footsteps of Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff, on the keen eye of Mat Tobin, to see what there is to see, to learn the legends that explain landscape – and with them I can hear my own worry that we are becoming incurious about the wild spaces and about their stories.
A word or two from Joe Shute, to ground me in the real worlds of the ferocious intelligence of ravens. Here he is meeting Loki and Elliott, one of his humans:
He is startlingly tactile with Elliott, jumping onto his shoulder and head and allowing him to stroke his black, glossy plumage. It takes a few minutes for him to settle and grow used to the strange faces looking in at him, then he permits us to stroke his soft neck-feathers too. This close the raven’s plumage is an array of purple, greens and brown that pool shimmering together.
Ch 4, Speaking with Ravens
And here we see Joe out in the dark, in the wilds of Anglesey, and despite the shadows this is vivid, grounded writing:
We stand together in silence as the ravens settle and the nightly dialogue begins.
How to describe the calls? The pig snorts, rolling logs, horse hooves on a hard road, chittering primates and popping champagne corks that come to my ears, seem far too parochial manifestations of this preternatural medley. As the night passes, we even hear snatches of raven song, a whispered ethereal sound barely audible through the chorus.
Ch 8 A Night in a Raven Roost
As with so much in Antlers of Water, the really vivid in A Shadow Above is in the actual, the seen and touched, the place driven to. But this reading week after Christmas has included the transcendental nature writing of Annie Dillard: she must have the last word in this post, a call for reverence and beauty, the stuff that has sustained me in troublesome 2020 and will doubtless be needed in the coming year:
This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant…loud as music, filling the grasses and skies