Carnival chaos

To recap some of my thoughts about Hallowe’en. The use of such conquering fear of the dark activities seems to me pretty obvious:

winter nights enlarge/The number of their hours

and we can make the best of it by smiling at the dark. Thomas Campion‘s lyrics have it just right, and youthful revels have their place in the honey love of the closing-in evenings.

The pro and con tensions in part arise from the abuses these revels engender. “Psychos” and “Slutty Vampires” sit uncomfortably with my English folk-horror. Yet they’re not wholly American: Trick or Treat at least has an element of bargaining amid the demanding money with menaces, unlike much of its ancestor, Mischief Night, whose joys seem vengeful or gleefully malign. A door latch has a drawing pin attached to it with dog poo, so the unwary person who pricks his thumb goes at once to suck it… a sooty chicken is induced to cause havoc at a WI meeting…

Yes, these are both occurrences from North Yorkshire I’ve been told about.  They are the same Carnival as the Big Skeleton, the Little Skeleton and the Dog Skeleton go in for as they riot their way home in Funnybones, or the menacing pumpkin head that gets its comeuppance in the story of the hopping pumpkin  who meets an ignominious end with a goat (this is a link to a longer text than the one I tell).  But the Carnival is there because we are at a sort of seasonal fault-line, where summer’s lease is up and the dark is at the door.

There is a sense for me that this big change is the Autumn answer to May Day. The nights close in, the socialisation is indoors, defined, more visible, with the freedoms of warmer weather lost or at least traded for friends and firesides.  When C S Lewis envisages this in the hearts of his heroes in That Hideous Strength they think of

…stiff grass, hen-roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the Sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars.

No mischief or carnival here s we stare into the dark.  Mischief, however, is close friends with these shadows and darkness, of the almost-known, the footsteps partly recognised. It is the younger sibling of more menace, and this is partly why it is disquieting: does it licence the bully, the vandal? In looking into the shadows, does it, as Kathleen Raine so evocatively puts it:

Let in the dark,

Let in the dead…

(Northumbrian Sequence IV is cited in extenso here in my post about poetry and spirituality)?

It seems to me that this week or so – Hallowe’en to Remembrance/Martinmas – is a real blending of a gleeful naughtiness, the swede or pumpkin lantern and the restlessness of wind and dark, wet evenings, as the chaos of Carnival mimics and mocks – and presages – the chaos and pain of the storms of winter and death, “þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan” “Talis vita hominum praesens in terris…”

So when we smile at the shadows when we look at books for (and with) children, how do we approach death and disaster?  The too-brief nod recently to the BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials asks about the Beeb’s decisions to show it pre-watershed. We might similarly ask about Erlbruch’s Death, Duck and Tulip, that strange and lovely meditation on the role of death in our lives – or Thummler’s Sheets, or McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, or Ness’ A Monster Calls…  In fact, although the list isn’t endless, there are plenty of books that offer wonderful and painful insights as they look at death and pain and loss.

The good writer who perceives a good story need not shy away from the issues; the reader who comes to these texts comes prepared for challenge, maybe for tears – but trusts the writer to deliver something that will bring them safely to shore. Raine puts it well when she suggests that in our innocence it is still within us to

bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild

and (for me the subtlest line)

Have pity on the raven’s cry

 

 

 

Forest School or Outdoor Learning

A local school recently tweeted that at Forest School the children had “learnt about bioaccumulation through a game with foxes and mice.” Similarly today the Brookes undergraduates in Early Childhood and Education Studies learned how to make a standing-up giant, paint on trees, and how to pace a storytelling session and what to do when the sun is in your eyes.

I don’t begrudge anyone their learning, obviously – here, or in the woods around a school, or on a walk in the Botanic Garden or (as we did a year ago) on a trip with our MA students around local parks, looking at design and purpose. Bioaccumulation is a good thing to know about; linking the wind in the trees with the listening skills vital for acquisition of skills in phonics is good, too; the practical skills of painting with mud, the health and safety aspects of transporting large logs, the content and context of telling a story about a Hallowe’en pumpkin – these are useful in their place. They will all be even more useful when applied, reflected on, maybe even when they supply material for assessed work.

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But a purist voice in my ear asks are these Forest School?  What makes Outdoor learning – even learning in a wood – Forest School?   For me the tension is around how I “teach about Forest School,” when I find that the easiest thing to do is show activities that might occur in Forest School, which tends to mean we do adult (i.e. me) led activities, when some of the best times I’ve had with children in Forest School have been tree-climbing, den-making : things that children have chosen and devised. Should I be making opportunities for my (mostly young) adult learners just to sit, or climb, or muck about? Is mucking about a part of the curriculum?

Perhaps rather than trying for a false dichotomy here, we might look at curriculum as something richer than frameworks for learning, or even intent,  implementation, and impact.  What might curriculum be, if the Forest is not an extra-curricular activity?  If we look at the Oxfordshire local outdoor centre, Hill End, and their statement on Forest School there is much to ponder. This seems to me to be at the heart of their thinking:

Forest School sessions are practical and primarily child led. The emphasis is on the development of self-esteem, communication and social skills, personal responsibility and citizenship. These skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. When embedded in the setting’s curriculum Forest School enriches and links to all areas of development and learning.

and to move from the windswept smiles of the undergraduates this morning and this afternoon to look at this in a bit of detail, two phrases stick out for me: practical and primarily child led and [t]hese skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. In other words one of the markers of Forest School is the child-initiated activity, and another is that skills, rather than primarily content are what feed back into school.

Does this invalidate the experience in which the educator follows the learners’ interests? No, but what has given me pause for thought was the first year student whose commentsIMG_1091.JPG this morning  showed her perspicacity. In distinguishing (as she did) between “fun” and “engagement” she laid bare one of the most important issues facing outdoor education that follows something of the Forest School ideal. Primarily child-led, but a powerful element in enriching school-based learning. Not every student can do this so early in their course; not every teacher or pedagogic critic can do it either.

Curriculum is not a simple set of stepping stones of skills or a navigable maze of knowledge, although knowledge and skills are certainly there, but a complex mix of both – and more: it is only really understood where context is also explicitly planned for and understood.

And this is where the mistakes of some of my students emerge: they confuse engagement with fun, and both with notions of child-led exploration. Too easy to think about “getting children” to build a den, rather than letting them do it. Getting rather than letting, as if value comes with adult input.

And maybe I get confused too: in trying to sell Forest School, do I go for fun over engagement, my planning over student enthusiasm, and in the words of Francis Thompson, “miss the many-splendoured thing”?

Starting out

Just a quick thought for the students on two of the three modules I’m teaching this semester, based on the relationship between the cat and the rabbit in the wonderful Up The Mountain. My comments here might be something to follow up, but are in no way important for what follows here. I hope this works for the three modules* but maybe in different ways: I have to say that from the outset I’m writing this really for the first years: for “my” Ed Studies students, and then for the first year Outdoor Learning people in Early Childhood.

img_9968The model that the book Up The Mountain explores is one of friendship and apprenticeship. The author wrote it in memory of her grandmother “who loved nature and books” – and that pretty much sums up my attitude to this semester’s teaching: warmth, love of Nature, love of books. 

However, if this were all, I think I would be wondering if this was worth a degree. Just as sometimes I look at CPD that people report as inspirational and think “that was a day’s worth?” I worry that coming out of the undergraduate process thinking that one or two tutors were nice people and that being outside is lovely is just too weak. Of course, in the CDP example and the undergraduate one, this précis is too wishy-washy to be a decent overview of what anyone has learn, but what do I want students to do when starting out in  Higher Education?  I find myself as old Mrs Badger, watching the little cat explore, and grow – and pass on his delight to the (even littler) rabbit who joins his journey.  Perhaps the imagery doesn’t extend too far, a delight though the book is.

But to move away from metaphor, let’s take Doodles, the therapy dog whose work is described in Cheryl Drabble’s book and her blog. Why use a book like this in the Introduction to Education Studies? Well, because it describes and uses the disciplines of Education Studies in a compassionate and engaged context. Real children and young people, along with their educators, have encountered and appear to benefit from a different way of working. How do we know this works?  Do we define curriculum in such a way that the experience of education has room for “cute, fluffy, handsome, pretty and furry”?**

We will, of course, read about the uses and abuses of cherrypicking educational practices and about the ways theory can and can’t be used – from Developmentally Appropriate Practice to looking at models of (dis)advantage – but Cheryl Drabbles’ dog allows us to ask big questions through a practical lens.  For example:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?

All this from a small dog?

We might, by moving beyond the text itself into exploring what we mean by distinguishing between research and news media, ask

  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

All this in twelve weeks?

No, and no. We (the students and I) are beginning to pose these questions, just as we are beginning to put together the skills the students will need for the next few years and beyond.  And of course it’s not Doodles – or even Cheryl Drabble’s book about him and his impact on her school – that gives us these things. We are using the idea of a therapy dog, and what people have said about therapy dogs (and mutatis mutandis the experiences we are having outdoors in the other modules and what people write about being outdoors) as ways of starting to explore the Big Questions both in the abstract and the concrete. We are also starting to look at the conventions that Higher Education (sort of) seeks to impose on its neophytes.  So – to end with practical questions – if we are using (as many students are) the e-version of the book, how are you going to reference a quotation from it? How might you summarise some of Drabble’s conclusions?

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*The three modules are: the first year module Introduction to the Study of Education and the first and second/third year modules Young Children’s Outdoor Learning. Doodles makes his appearance especially in the first of these.

**Drabble, C (2019) Introducing a School Dog: a practical guide. London: Jessica Kingsley.  Drabble (2019:98)

Robin

It’s National Poetry Day and I’m clearing old woody clippings from an allotment that is, thanks to Rosa, coming back to life like something in Frances Hodgson Burnett. As with yesterday’s digging, I am accompanied by a robin. It is friendly enough to allow me to photograph it from close up. I love its jet-jewel eye and the way its chest moves as a bubbling song comes from somewhere in its tiny body. I love its daring proximity – it flies so close at one point, a wing brushes my leg.

Its closeness and seeming trust mean I am able to photograph it – but miss the Mafiosi magpies who swoop and bicker close by, and am nowhere near fast enough for the dive of a sparrowhawk as it twists into the trees, after some luckless songbird. After the robin? My little friend?

The theme of this poetry day is truth, and I do wonder how truth exhibits itself – or is exhibited in Nature Writing. There are the monumental and disturbing images from Underland, and the small but detailed work of taxonomy and the science of magnifiers; there is the work from Peter Fiennes on woodland, and the research from Mat about language and landscape – and then there is this robin, and the magpies and the hawk. Guardian nature writing; CaedmonGilbert White; Edgelands and the Shell Country Alphabet: they all bring something to the kaleidoscape that seeks to explore and explain and act as advocate. There is a cloud of witnesses here.

But to think about truth in Nature Writing (why those upper case letters?) and a short poem I was brought back – by that killer robin, terror of the worms I was turning over, and by the sparrowhawk that set the wrens in ear-achingly shrill panic – to the ambiguity of our gaze. The robin as my friend – or as belligerent defender of her/his turf? Sparrowhawk as dangerous thief – or as a beautiful trajectory on an autumn day?

And that gave me the poem for today, a marvel in concise, painterly imagery from Anne Stevenson, and a sharp reminder of the way our truth, our human truth is only ours, not universal:

Gannets Diving

The sea is dark
by virtue of its white lips;
the gannets, white,
by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt
with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,
though it does not appear so
to you in the speared fish.

 

 

The sparrowhawk didn’t get the robin, by the way.

Sing me…

Bede’s telling of the story of Cædmon’s miracle has a freshness in Old English that is as sharp on the mind as the iodine of seaweed is on the tongue and in the nose here in Whitby. We meet in this untutored farm worker a confrontation between lack of self confidence and grace, between establishment and creativity – and the birth of vernacular English poetry. Whatever the truth of this story, when even its location is in doubt, I just want to record my gratitude to this moment when the stress of politics and belief found some release in a moment of creativity.

In the well worn story, the unmusical, unpoetic Cædmon who has skulked off to avoid singing, is commanded to sing by the miraculous dream-visitor:

Eft he cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: ‘Hwæðre þu meaht singan.’ Þa cwæð he: ‘Hwæt sceal ic singan?’ Cwæð he: ‘Sing me frumsceaft.’ 

Sing to me of the beginning-making.

Sing of creation, sing of Nature: sing into English the glorious hymnody, the great Nature poets: sing John Clare, Rob MacFarlane, Wendell Berry, Ralph Emerson, sing Maya Angelou and Alice Oswald and Keats and Hopkins and Thomas and…

… and here I am in Whitby and conscious of all the ambiguity in this story, but nevertheless wanting to say thank you for the burgeoning of beauty that gave us the tale of the night-watchman who changed us for ever.

A Good Story

I commented on Richard Powers’ book when I was part-way through, making connections between Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial (for me almost scriptural) Underland and Powers’ rich and mind-expanding The Overstory. For what it’s worth, the link is here. This is just a codicil, really, trying to make sense of what I think eco-literature might be.

Powers’  narratives are rich and engrossing, and while I see Patricia Westerford as having the key storyline – another character towards the end of the book hearing one of her lectures suggests this might be the author’s intention – others will follow this disparate fellowship of artists and activists, cowards and heroes in different ways. It is Westerford, the lost-then-found scientist of forest and human interbeing, who has the message from an ecological perspective:

“A fluid changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other”

and

“Our brains evolved to solve the forest…to see green is to grasp the Earth’s intentions.”

However, there is more than just sermonising here. The deliberately rhizomatic storylines, in which characters reach out, connect, have meaning gives the novel a keep-your-wits-about-you edge: challenging  and yet engrossing. The endings for the human dramatis personae are ambigous at least. Dodging round the spoilers I can just say that one character, facing a Hellish future, nonetheless finds purpose in his life past and to come, gains the one crumb of comfort possible to him: that he knows what his purpose has been, and is: to give the moral purpose of his ecological insights the story they need.

I was very conscious of this impetus – perhaps it is what has driven my reading of these final sections of The Overstory – when I was in the Lye Valley at the weekend. Lye Valley is a short walk from where I live, a SSSI, a small, very rare piece of fenland, only, really, kept up by strenuous conservation. I was impressed by the Friends of Lye Valley‘s efforts as much as I was concerned by the encroachment. IMG_0719Not the silly vandalism of arson, harsh though that is, but the more calculated threatened developments that will alter precious run-off and the way light touches some areas, of potential pollution and game-play from developers, Councils and Trusts. How small conscience-easing grants alone will not in the end preserve such a small piece of wetland in the suburbs of a land-needy city. Change is of course inevitable in so many ways: my copy of W G Hoskins Making of the English Landscape opens, I see, at the 1795 map of Middle Barton, and his comments about village development; my mind turns to the assarts of Leafield and the encroachments on and enclosures of the great forest.

I loved the Grass of Parnassus in among the wet grasses of the Lye Valley, and how its mention in a low countries herbal in the C16th might come from a visit to this very site; I loved the lousewort, the service tree  – but these are not enough to make a story, even in tiny England, let alone in a world of Amazonian fires, and in any case, what would our whingeing be to an aspiring farmer in the C18th or a family looking for land in the C14th? When as Jack Zipes says

To have a fairy tale published is like a symbolic public announcement, an intercession on behalf of oneself, of children, of civilization

I wonder if this also applies to a book as big as The Overstory or Underland?  An intercession (not a sermon) on behalf of civilization?  So is this really the purpose of ecoliterature? Not to persuade in itself – The Overstory doesn’t do that – but to give a story on which imagination and theory can come together?

[…]

I am – seriously – interrupted as I type by a blue tit fluttering and tapping the window frame, looking (I suspect) for spiders to eat. Spiders that are maybe here because of the little evening flies that I attract by having my light on.  Another little story.  I lose the thread, and have other work to do but will post this anyway, ending with half a parable. Maybe that’s all we have at the moment: collections of half-parables.

 

Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

My mention of Jane and the Pendragon in my earlier post suggested to me that some of the good things about C S Lewis’ problematic text That Hideous Strength come from the interplay between the modern world and the enigmatic emergence of Merlin, meeting with his leader, Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, a Cambridge academic who by chance or design now holds the fate of an embattled world in his hand. In a comfortable country house in England the two men are in discussion about how to save Britain – the Arthurian Logres – from the grasp of its power-hungry and immoral leaders:

Suddenly the magician. smote his hand upon his knee.
“Mehercule!” he cried.“Are we not going too fast? if you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres and I will counsel you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now. Is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres. I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it then his great men — the counts and legates and bishops — who do the evil and he does not know. of it?”
“It is — though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl.Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now.They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people.There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher.We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms.We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor…” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.

No Emperor.  Lewis’ meditation on the collapse of morality and faith comes immediately after the Second World War, another episode in the devastation of Europe in the C20th.  It is a fantasy novel, of course, and has moments of comedy, insight – and a troubling theological sexism. It would make a wonderfully quirky film – with some very notable rewriting.  It is a harking-back to a golden age that Lewis tries explicitly in some of the Narnia books, and indeed the kings and queens and heroes who come to rescue Narnia are in some ways reimaginings of the Arthurian rescue: they do not sleep under a hill, but take another life in our mundane England.

It is this that Susan Cooper is answering in her charge when her Merlin tells the children that their task is to take up the Matter of Britain themselves, not as fantasy readers or antiquarian scholars but by engaging with the power that harms and grasps and mocks. Cooper’s Merlin is more worldly wise than Lewis’ when she has him say “ the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control.” I have discussed this hard lesson before – but it is a hard lesson. Arthur will not do it; no Archbishop or Monarch is going to save us: we have to do it. Lewis’ Merlin, under the guidance of his Pendragon, rises to the challenge, and the difference between Cooper and Lewis is that his Science Fiction does have rescuers, in the tutelary spirits of the solar system who endow Merlin with supernatural power. Lewis is playing with allegory here, and in the passage cited above shows how the disjunction can be an effective plot line. Cooper saves her message for the last pages of her sequence of books, and the message is clear: in times of crisis, of confrontation, a new post-War morality requires us to step up, to make choices and to act on them.

And the “Most perilous time”?  A line from a monk on the eve of the dissolution of his monastery, another period of question, of violence, manipulation and painful reemergence. Not always are these moments of crisis just the matter of fiction.