The First Tree in the Greenwood

Holly

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

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

Aftermath

It is probably worth saying right at the start that writers such as Benjamin Myers and Peter Fiennes, writing about the Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd floods, are reporting on disasters that impact hugely on humans and their dependent livestock. I may have known these locations in Calderdale in the past, but I am in no position to comment on their powerful and much more up-to-date reportage. When Peter F writes “This is Yorkshire after all: the rains fall and the rivers run fast” he is not being dismissive, but moving into a critique of climate change, housing, development and farming that are having an impact on real lives and communities: I am writing about “just” a bit of Edgeland, a “wildlife corridor” some 0.5km from my front door. As Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts put it “Edgelands landscapes grow in gaps, changing as they cross a road, circle a building.”

And this is “my” (our) Edgelands. Last night for the second time in a fortnight, the trees, leggy, scrubby, largely uncared-for, roared like the forest giant Khumbaba (here as Humbaba) or like the way that the Psalmist (103/4) envisages God “walking on the wings of the wind” when “the waters stood higher than the mountains ” – and this morning we went out to see what the aftermath was. Aftermath: the field after the mowing; even here we are into metaphor, half-remembered etymologies and myths. There were trees leaning where before they had stood up, trunks shattered and blocking paths (and even from last night, new paths emerging from early runners’ feet and padding dogs), little bits of branches down and bigger ones that have bashed through the canopy, cutting the bark on smaller ones, bringing venerable ivy down with them. It’s not a disaster, but there are trees that will not recover in their present state, I guess. They have been mowed down – wantonly, rather haphazardly – by the giants, like me bashing nettles with a stick – and we live around the stalks.

“Our woods,” Farley and Symmons Roberts write, “are a complicated and sustaining myth. We yearn for traces of the original tracts of greenwood…We imagine the lone copse surrounded by arable fields or the farmer’s shelterbelt of woodland to be the last remnants of a primeval forest that once covered the land, green pools left over in the bed of a vast retreated inland sea.” It’s hard this morning not to feel that we are walking through an area where some huge vandal has been at play, and somehow I wonder if the vandal isn’t Khumbaba or the Psalmist’s vision of God, but us: the bike in the brook and the scattered crips packets suggest as much. Fiennes puts it gloomily: “The growth of everything: towns, cities, roads and runways, the population, the carrier bags and all that pointless tat and crap that no one needs and never wanted. If you spend time in the woods, it’s impossible to avoid the biggest questions of all – what’s it all for? Not just the woods but everything. What do we think we are doing? What on earth is the point? Wouldn’t it be better if none if us were here?”

And yet… and yet…

And for all this, nature is never spent, as Hopkins puts it. “Natural forests contain trees at all stages of their life cycles,” as Whitmore notes. The willow that is now leaning into the mud will – if we let it – root and shoot and keep going; the tall trees by Boundary Brook will turn to mush, home for bugs and fungi and a whole chain of creatures living their lives in the faltering and decomposing timber. Light breaks in in places it did not before, even on a grey morning.

Oh, am I back to metaphor again?

Sword-grey sky, daffodil light

To do no more this morning than record this astonishing section from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord. The protagonist, newly made king of the peoples of what we might describe as Western Scotland, Red Phaedrus, img_2217
is out to catch the woman appointed as his wife. These are horse-people, as the book’s title suggests, and this rough “courtship” (here as in the Lantern Bearers Sutcliff does not shy away from the nature of marriage and being given in marriage and its impact on woman) is the bridgegroom’s chase after his bride. They are both mounted, and she has a head start as the groom’s party pursue her through the country of the Dál Riata.  Just look at this amazing use of colour and shade, and how Sutcliff anchors this in the landscape features – the whirlpool of the Old Woman, the mountain of Cruachan she has already introduced us to in map and in narrative.

The track was pulling up now, out of the great flats of Mhoin Mhor, and the quarry, striking away from it, was making north-eastward for the hills around Loch Abha head. And the wild hunt swept after her, hooves drumming through the blackened heather, skirting little tarns that reflected the sword-grey sky, startling the green plover from the pasture clearings. Far over to the west the clouds were breaking as they came up into the hills, and a bar of sodden daffodil light was broadening beyond the Island, casting an oily gleam over the wicked swirling water of the Old Woman, while away and northward, the high snows of Cruachan caught the westering beams and shone out sour-white against the storm-clouds dark behind.

Think Human and Think Literature

In among teaching, marking, and research, Mat Tobin has convened a really exciting evening panel conference (with me as whipper-in) and really to advertise this event as part of the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes, I thought I’d post a brief reflection – and if you aren’t already aware of how to book in, or what the details are, this is the link to the details on Eventbrite.childrens literature conference (1)-1

The award-winning panel we will meet at the event – Daniel Hahn, with discussants Catherine Johnson, Beverley Naidoo and S F Said – will of course have their own things to say, and Jon Appleton will reflect on Jan Mark as well, to start us off. I may get a chance to reflect by blog on the issues they raise later. I won’t subvert the discussion by starting it now. Well, not much.

I wanted to take a step back and think – as this blog title puts it – about how Think Human seems to me just has to be something to do with story. Over Christmas Chris Lovegrove followed closely the Twitter conversation about Masefield’s Box of Delights and in his summing up on his blog suggested that there is “fictionalising of autobiographical elements” in Masefield. Do we – or if I’m not going to overgeneralise, do I – do the reverse when I read? Did I need in some sense to become Kay Harker, the orphaned hero, when I first read The Midnight Folk and its sequel with my mum and dad comfortably having a Middle Class cup of tea downstairs? Do I autobiographise (that’s a terrible word; I promise not to use it again) elements of fiction as I read?

In the MA module I participate in, I ask the students to look at a chapter (15, if you’re interested)  of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he writes

Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.

(I must admit one reason for including this chapter in their discussion is MacIntyre’s example of the young man at the bus stop and the duck – but that’s by the way).

In life, MacIntyre suggests

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.

It would seem natural that, if we live this metaphor, we would try to discover patterns in our own narrative by looking at other people’s – fictional or actual. Empathy and even compassion are part of our participation in a story. It is interesting that MacIntyre’s own example includes this identification between storyteller and audience specifically in a drama/story context:

Each of us being a main character in his own drama … In my drama, perhaps,I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince…

I think it is fundamental to the conversation of drama, novel, even the everyday “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today…”  and perhaps it always has been. The hunter returns to the fire and tells us of the kill she or he has made, and we try and empathise ourselves into their account. Or they return and tell us of the deer that leapt past them into the undergrowth and how it lives and we think what it must be like to live like that, the choices it might make (and maybe how we might catch it) – and all of a sudden I am at one with Rob Cowan’s magnificent empathetic account of the deer in Common Ground. 4000 BCE or today.  The act of storytelling may have become more complex over millennia, but has an element of identification between telling and hearing: what one of the characters in Alan Garner’ Boneland pronounces as a ‘True Story,” a story in which we understand something more of ourselves, a story that makes us “think Human.”

But this is just my take: does everybody – writers, translators, readers – see it this way?  One of the main ideas of getting such major voices together was to urge people who come to Boxes of Delight to try and see what links there might be between how writers communicate. Are there common themes on how they approach their task? What is the importance of the values they communicate? Do they write for the child they once were; do they write with a specific audience in mind? 

See you on 11th Feb.?

 

 

Gifts Reserved for Age?

A storm was gathering yesterday that has hit us good and proper today. I had been for a walk and a coffee and came out from the pub to see the lights on in St Andrews across the way. Evening Prayer time in a warm, quiet, dark church.

And when I got home I looked up the words from T S Eliot because, I wanted, I suppose, some more of that sense of contemplation that Eliot tries for:

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England…

The aesthetic pathway of spirituality may be cultural, maybe victim to changing fashions or simply growing up, but it is not to be forgotten: it creates the thin places, or sharpens the senses to see those places where prayer has been valid, where the other and the now meet. Thin places. In the church the silent near-dark was stunning, and all those poems from all those Thomases,   Thomas Merton and R S Thomas and T S Eliot (not to mention Dylan Thomas’ “close and holy darkness”) were somehow at my elbow. And maybe the incense smudge of a memory of the church when I was a child, after Compline and Benediction, or the quiet of Magdalen after Night Prayer…

But tonight it is different, and the blustery grey has been superseded by a Wild Hunt of a storm. Time then to go back in my mind to another thin place, to the little, basic cottage on the North York moors where this poem from Kathleen Raine was posted up by a previous inhabitant, and said so much about a keener, wilder, maybe more dangerous spirituality. I have cited it before.

Let in the wind,
Let in the rain,
Let in the moors tonight,
The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,
The dead that rot in the mire,
Let in the thronging ancestors,
The unfilled desire,
Let in the wraith of the dead earl,
Let in the dead tonight.

Let in the cold,
Let in the wet,
Let in the loneliness,
Let in the quick,
Let in the dead,
Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave
A covering for the void,
How can my fearful heart conceive
Gigantic solitude?
How can a house so small contain
A company so great?
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead,
Let in your love tonight.
Let in the snow that numbs the grave,
Let in the acorn-tree,
The mountain stream and mountain stone,
Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart
And frail my virgin form,
And must I then take pity on
The raging of the storm
That rose up from the great abyss
Before the earth was made,
That pours the stars in cataracts
And shakes this violent world?

Let in the fire,
Let in the power,
Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about my house
With all the violence of desire
Desiring this my peace.

Which Moomin Character?

A lot can be said – and has been said – about Tove Jansson’s relationships within the books and cartoon strips, and she does indeed present a child’s Hogarth of a world, where foibles and strengths are all on show, from Sniff’s immaturity to a similar self-centredness in the Muskrat, hiding in his mauvaise foi in a dismissive attitude. And all this in a landscape that (for me when I first read the books in Harlow [as it then was] “New Town”) enticing and alien: mountain streams with crocodiles, and observatories and impromptu woodland dances…  Part of me wondered if this was how Scandinavia really was, and maybe it took reading the Summer Book at Brookes for me to see how clever Jansson was about these ways marrying of reality and fantasy. Part of me wondered if those weird and engaging people were real too, whether I had some part of me in those stories.

Turn but a tweet and start a blog, to paraphrase Francis Thompson.  A discussion today on Twitter prompted me to offer reading about the Fillyjonk as an example of the joy of private, quiet reading.  Why, when discussing reading, did I suggest a Fillyjonk as the person I want to meet in my private reading? I was thinking of Tales from Moominvalley, I suppose, and she was the first person I could think of, a minor character rather than Moomin (see below) or from his immediate friends or family.  Showing off, I suppose, like Sniff…   A Fillyjonk is essentially an anxious person “dutiful to the point of tedium – not a character I immediately  identify with, although I can see what I was getting at, I suppose: a catastophizer who meets with a real disaster.   So who would I like to be?

  • I am too much of a home body to join the Hattifateners – whom I loved because I could draw them.
  • Bingummy and Thob taught me so much about language play – but I was an only child, in effect: that wasn’t the bizarre little twins.
  • The ghost in the Exploits, with a gentle side and a macabre turn of phrase?
  • The Hemulen Aunt? There have been times when, as an Early Years teacher, I have heard her voice come out from my mouth. And Edward the Booble’s grumpy tones. 
  • The Groke? Well, she was my avatar for our Virtual Learning Environment for quite some time. I wonder whether she sloped off when I changed it, leaving a trail of frost across the internet.

This isn’t the quiz that you can do.  I haven’t done it. Really, even when I first read Finn Family Moomintroll (and heard it on Jackanory in the mid-60s), I think I had it worked out, albeit dimly: Moomintroll pining after Snufkin. And so often I could characterise my relationships – certainly the ones that had me roaming morosely around as an undergraduate – as ones in which my inner Moomin longed and longed to be the adventurous and carefree Bohemian. Jansson may not be Maimonides, but the Moomins were a family when I was so perplexed I felt I had none, and “which Moomin character are you?” would have had only one answer.  And there were quite a lot of candidates for Snufkin…

But of course the joy and the cleverness of Jansson’s characters is that you can be more than one. Dutiful to the point of tedium like Mrs Fillyjonk; self-centred Sniff; fussy and obsessive like a Hemulen, full of unrealistic hopes like the little dog who wished he was a wolf  – and now? Well, Maggie is making cakes in the kitchen, and I am in my study pondering my youth.

Inosculation

Just sometimes a day in January makes me want to believe in spring.  A chilly day down the allotment – should have been the morning but we pressed on – and my task was to finish some hazel coppicing. img_1988Well, actually my task was to tidy the absolute dog’s breakfast I had made of the hazel I had undertaken to coppice on some communal land to one side of the plots. Hacking with a billhook like William Ager had been immensely satisfying but really untidy; a mixture of billhook, bowsaw and ordinary handsaw meant I managed better. At least occupied with coppicing there was was no diggin’ to be done in the claggy soil.

Two rods stand tall on one hazel stool, and turn round each other. At one point they meet, touch and begin a process of fusing together known as inosculation, a joining together: the term has its root in the Latin word for kissing. I am, because of how my mind works, really quite moved by the metaphor – but recognise that I need to get to work. The two rods have, I guess, been working at this for years, but now I need to get cutting. I sort of hope that I can cut the fusion out as a whole piece (but in the end I can’t)… but the time the hazel has taken and the time it takes my saw to undo the fusion seem out of all proportion.

Old man on an allotment hazel stand: hardly great forestry or John Seymour-like land management. Forest School is not survival training; allotmenting is not farming. But once in a while, what we potter about at is something that is in the shadows of a bigger husbandry and a longer history: the stone axe; the horse, the enclosures.  And the kissing metaphor makes me think of so many nature writers’ respect and tenderness for the landscapes they represent. So when I come home, thinking of how this work is explored, I look at various texts. Edward Parnell’s exploring of the ghostlands of literature and his own biography; Thomas Merton’s monks whose “saws sing holy sonnets;” the changing and unchanging downs of the White Horse in David Miles’ book… and then into other writers on my shelves, where I am struck by this:

What a bare desert of a place the world would be without its woods and trees. How long would man live once he had broken the balance.

Ian Niall, in Fresh Woods and Pastures New (Little Toller did one with lovely illustrations by Barbara Greg) is keen eyed and dreadfully prescient about deforestation.

When he cuts down the planting, the copse, the old oak wood, it takes him a little while to see that the drainage is different, that the soil washing into the hollow, and new crops of rock are in his field. The lumbermen come and haul away the timber and every yard of the fields on either side changes in nature, new weeds, new grasses, more sun, less humus, water-logged drains in wet weather, overflowing ditches. A year or two, and the man sees what he has done, but how long must he wait to see it as it once was?

Believing in spring feels easy on a chill, bright January day: believing in a world where we can find ways to harvest from the earth when it looks like the Anthropocene crisis is upon us in the Amazon, Jakarta and Australia feels a lot harder. “Man sees what he has done:” but can we step back from it, somehow? Can we realise our need to reconnect, to re-fuse with the world we live in?