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But tonight it is different, and the blustery grey has been superseded by a Wild Hunt of a storm.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.

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?

Statio

The year’s midnight. 

“Always winter and never Christmas.” C S Lewis’ ultimate baddie, the White Witch, keeps Narnia frozen in a time when the natural cycle of death and birth cannot continue. Will Stanton in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising has his midwinter birthday interrupted, threatened, brought into its rightful place by the crises in the book. Kay Harker’s dream (or not-a-dream) sees the Christmas of Merrie England restored when the dark powers of   sorcery threaten to destroy it. I feel I also have to note en passant the most terrifying version of this for me, Michelle Paver’s adult work Dark Matter, where the narrator faces months of night time and solitude – and something far worse out on the Arctic ice. The time in late December is reenacted in these stories as a time of crisis, and the subtext seems to me to be a worry that as the days darken, the sun will not return, no hope for love “At the next world, that is, at the next spring.” A fear that This is It.

As Catherine Butler in Four British Fantasists suggests of the interplay between magic and humanity in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence

The Light is opposed in turn by the Dark, and most of the activity of the other mythical and historical figures involved in the sequence is related in some way or another to their struggle. Given Cooper’s insistence (as in the description of Herne) on the wildness of some of these figures, this moral alignment of their magical power might be problematic.

Problematic indeed. The complexity of this vision is one of the things that Masefield is beginning to explore, and that Lewis more or less avoids, but which Cooper meets head-on in The Dark is Rising – and in more meditative and lyrical form in a poem she first published in 1974.

The publication of Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day , which re-presents Cooper’s 1970s contribution to a larger work, has prompted renewed interest (it never really goes away) in the interplay between UK fantasy writers and the folklore they draw on. There are some lovely reviews already out (e.g. Kirkus, Brainpickings (who [of course] beat me to the Dillard reference, although that doesn’t often stop me) praising the text and artwork, and this is not a review but some thoughts at a tangent. Again, I am not alone in this tack: Calmgrove’s Christmas Delights (which already sounds like a box of candied fruits) has a wonderful post exploring a selection of writers from Nesbit to Masefield, and then Lewis, and so to Cooper herself. By celebrating Solstice (check out Solstice here)  she sets up not a Pagan in the sense of antiChristian but an unChristian, a preChristian festivity, gloriously underlined by the images Ellis gives us, as wanderers move through a land that they increasingly mark as their own.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us – Listen!!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day…

In Ellis’s paintings we see the “precarious business” as the palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer puts it, of early humanity’s existence in our inhospitable winter, and we see our efforts – the our, I think, underwires the charm and power of this book – at keeping the dangers and demons at bay across the centuries.  It is a similar nostalgia (thank you again, Chris Lovegrove, for this insight into Masefield ) to the gathering of the ancestral (ghostly) Oldknows in Tolly’s first Christmas in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe, that we celebrated on our visit. All those long echoes in the stones of Hemingford Grey.

It sends me back to Ronald Hutton and his Stations of the Sun. In the opening chapters he carefully dissects Christmas customs with judiciously chosen details (I was intrigued by the mummers who menaced people having been “drinking, playing at cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits”) and drops in details that have resonances elsewhere, such as the apotropaic torch rituals in the Staffordshire moorlands town of Stanton.  It has to be remembered that Hutton, although with strong ties to various aspects of Paganism, is suitably cautious in his methodology:  Hutton looks at the Roman feasts of midwinter, Saturnalia and Kalendae, and then states

The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake…

before going on to explain the rise of the Twelve days and the Epiphany/Theophany in the Western and Eastern Churches.

In most of northern and central Europe, where the cold and darkness were much greater…it would have run into local patterns of pre-Christian seasonal celebrations….

But Hutton warns us that

Literary sources do not tell us anything conclusive about the midwinter festival practices of the ancient British Isles…

He find the early English sources more enlightening than many others, and his trail leads him to the conflation (as he suggests) of a Modranicht, or Mother Night, a middum wintra, with the Nativity. The festivities may predate Christian Christmas or draw on earlier practices*… And then he turns his gaze on Yule (jol, jul, juul), the jolly time of Norse festivities.

Stations of the Sun is not a pagan handbook but a scholarly exploration, suggesting that seasonal rituals were fluid, open to change, to diminishing and reinterpretation. It is right, therefore, that in his conclusion some 400 pages and a ring-round year of celebrations later he writes:

It is one of the arguments of this book that the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery and warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth…

[However] What is also plain is that the last couple of centuries, in this as in every other aspect of British life, have produced a completely unprecedented amount of change… No amount of nostalgia or anxiety for a rapidly diminishing or deteriorating natural environment can alter the essential irrelevance which it now possesses for the daily lives and seasonal habits of most of the British; however, this very fact may cause it to play an ever greater part in religious symbolism.

And not only there, I think.  Children’s literature – the work written “for children” and the work written meditating on childhood – seems to me often drawn to these natural cycles, and most of all to the changes of dark and light, for which the stores of story and ritual and symbol stand ready for writers and artists to draw on. I do wonder about the place of folklore and a kind of vision of archaic beliefs in the writings of fantasy – and marvel at the power of this time of year to bring out our need to explore these themes…

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*

Oh, I see you haven’t spelled Station right – and what is that about anyway?

I have, and this is my final point. To return to another of Hutton’s delightful side-comments, he suggests that Yule is connected not only to the world “jolly”  but perhaps to the word we know as wheel;  I can’t help thinking of the Sun Cross, the sign of the Old Ones in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and the ‘ring with the longways cross” the Oak Lady wears in The Box of Delights, but the symbol of the sun as wheeling around might suggest that while we think of Solstice as when the sun stands still, another version might be that it is that tipping point before a wheel starts to turn again. Nature holds its breath, much as St Bernard suggests we all do when the Angel presents Mary with her choice at the Annunciation (Nota Bene: this impassioned, dramatic passage from Bernard is set in Roman Rite breviaries as the non-scriptural reading for 20th December).  The holding of our breath: can we get out of this darkest time? The site Spirituality and Practice has a brief extract on Statio as the sacred pause.  The moment, maybe, before the liturgy starts, where everyone is standing ready, not awkwardly waiting but attentive. Birdwatching for the moment of grace. This is not to say that the Solstice is now simply that for Christian practice or post-Christian jollity – but that the winter Solstice in particular invites us to pause, to listen as the new world turns and does it all again.

 

*Bede is his source here. Hutton is, in case you are wondering, suitably cautious when we get to Easter and its original. 

 

PS:  The photo, by the way, is not an Old Way or my own Old Road outside my front door, but unexpected snow before Christmas a few years ago, taken on the feast of St Lucy, the old “Shortest Day” that John Donne celebrates (and I cited at the start of this post) and the birthday (not the feast) of Bl Lucy of Narnia. Well, sort of.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

Corvid, my Corvid

So I was standing in a large auditorium reading the names of people who were being awarded doctorates. There were more than I expected – in fact more and more seem to appear on the sheaf of papers I was reading from. I dropped the papers, and picked them up in any order. The hall kept getting bigger, I kept seeing more people, and the titles of their theses were, over and over, relevant or interesting to me. I mugged my way through the ceremony, trying to make some sense of the papers in front of me. All those people with doctorates and I couldn’t manage to read their names clearly enough.

And then I woke up, woke up with a sense of failure – and remembered that last night I had agreed to sign my withdrawal form from my own doctoral/MPhil experience. I signed it this morning, and the should’ve, could’ve, might’ve shadows make my tasks today – reading more of Hawkes’ A Land in the Bodleian and setting up teaching for the next semester – seem at first glance empty of significance.

But – like all but one of the psalms – I cannot leave it there. The title of my research still holds good: A critical investigation of themes in the depiction of the outdoors environment in young children’s picture books and one of the things reading and reading and thinking Ludchurch duskand talking about this have brought me is a closer look at landscape and the ways people interact with it. It has brought me all sorts of authors and ideas: Macfarlane, Garner, Gawain, Ludchurch;  it continues to allow me to work with and learn from Mat and Roger, to read with joy and understanding, to think  about the pressing issues of our ecological failures, to take pleasure (as well as feel concern) as I look at the world I walk in.

So here is Mary Oliver (of course) in her poem

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

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Spiritual patience, and the ambition of crows.

 

And thank you, Annie, for the raven linocut I’m finishing with. I might want to fly with the wings of eagles, but a keen eyed scavenger with a rude clarion cronk (thanks, Chris!) will do me just fine –

– and is probably just right. 

Underland and Overstory

He still binges on old-school reading. At night he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks…There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.

Richard Powers, The Overstory, Neelay Mehta

I read.  I read fast, slow, recite, note, on line, in paper books, out loud, in silence.  I’m not unusual in this, even in the binge-reading of some of the books that have come my way recently.  I do find it tiring, sometimes, even, oddly unnerving to see a TBR (To Be Read) pile mounting – but still compulsive. Like Patricia in The Overstory:

Then the reading, her nightly thousand-mile walk to the gulf. When her eyes won’t stay open any longer, she finishes with verse…

The walk for me includes all those classics unread, new books set to educate and delight, those well-loved books from the past that I have loved long since and lost awhile; re-reading is about depth but is also about limit and comfort, too (I finish with M R James more often: verse just makes me want to write)… The urge to read is maybe one reason why I go back to well-loved favourites ( for example, I have just got my third copy of C S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength*), even when tired at the end of a day.

Just sometimes, however, a pile of books present themselves that are of such quality that any sense of “one sodding thing after another” (to reuse the judgement on history from one of Alan Bennett’s  History Boys) is completely lost. As the title of this post suggests, they are Rob Macfarlane’s magisterial Underland and Richard Powers’ The Overstory.  In this case it’s two books: not really a pile.

“Reading,” Margaret Meek suggests, “demands explanations beyond the information given about the surface features of language, important as that undoubtedly is.”  It is with this in mind that I reached nearly half-way through Overstory and found this line, the culmination (or at least first-act closer) of the story of a botanist who discovers that forests are themselves ecological systems with their own means of communication:

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

The echoes with Underland and the wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake do not need repeating. Woodlands are not there to be judged as needing tidying.   – except that the human users want things a certain way. On the way I often run, for example, there is a young dead badger: already a bit bloated, with flies on its fur and the sweet smell starting. Do I look at it as part of a massive pattern, a fractal maybe, which at my level is discernible as flies and fungus and young trees and older ones, soil that was the badger’s life – or do I impose my need, even the drive of my spirituality (misplaced, I think) to show it respect?  In reading Underland and then The Overstory, I know how illiterate I am, like Powers’ prisoner, here:

If he could read, if he could translate…If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organised, the murderous freezes, the suffering and the struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction in every season this tree has ever lived.

Leave the badger by the path in the wood, move it, bury it?  Clear it up, and the pattern shifts: do we intrude by trying to make sense or enter the dance? Write about the history of Warneford Meadow in an effort to explain these scrubby trees to one side in what is grandly called a wildlife corridor? Look (as Paul Kingsnorth does in his essay on Burnham Beeches in Arboreal) at the networks of mycelial threads even here?  Maybe seeing it is our part in the pattern?  I confess that, in reading these books, I have been feeling elated and dismayed, disepmowered and propelled to try and and understand. And if we don’t try, then, bleakly as one character finds 

All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia.

All we have left is commodification, where even story is no longer an invitation to greater understanding but simply the cheap tricks of landscape depiction, a collection of backdrops and no more.

Arboreal, Common Ground, Underland, The Overstory and so much magnificent writing all stand as a challenge.

Turn but a stone and start a wing

or miss the many-splendoured thing?

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_____________

*As a diversion: To me Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is a book at once of its time and horrifyingly prescient in its vision of popularist seizing of media and power that is accompanied by radical and appalling dehumanisation. I admire some bits (the almost-not-there Institute Director who roams the corridors: every academic has known him), I love others (the discussion between Merlin and the C20th academic who has to bring him up to date), and have to say I wince at others – not least the final paragraphs). Of its time is a periphrasis or maybe euphemism for the fact that it is all terribly clubbable, Oxbridgy stuff with a deep theology of sexism thrown in…  So why the re-read?