Coracoid processes

Some thoughts on my Christmas reading

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

Annie Dillard, The Abundance, Paganism

Hear the Leaves

A fool could sit under the trees forever and grow no wiser.

UKLeG The Finder, Tales from Earthsea

The impatience of a person asked to undertake the tasks of contemplation is beautifully encapsulated in this little interchange. It is rings true with the Zen stories where a disciple asks a Big Question and is told to look at the landscape or clean his rice bowl. We are only free to “feel…what we feel in this moment” as Alan Watts suggests: “no way to free ourselves… the you that you imagine to be capable of transforming yourself doesn’t exist.”

Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle puts it like this:

At times of crisis when one realises that one is not free after all and serious doubts about oneself begin to arise, then one can no longer find a hold on what one always believed was one’s own. A difficult choice must then be faced: there must be a complete inner surrender… or else one must take hold of something else that is not yet this final and absolute reality.

H Enomiya-Lassalle, The Practie of Zen Meditation, Day 7

This week, the last in November and leading into December, is National Tree Week, so it seemed appropriate – if a little rushed on my part – to look at some trees that have recently been on my social media and my own reading. My friend Roger sends me a moving short bit of footage of an extract for Journey of the Magi recited in a forest; Jon posts a magical picture of a tree in foggy West Oxfordshire; Mat and I discuss (on social media and elsewhere) the still, warm place that is Lewis’ Wood Between the Worlds – and at home we are reading a more inimical view of trees in The Children of Green Knowe (broad hint for Christmas: Diana Boston has a shop). I cannot really make an anthology, not a proper one, of writers about trees, and Fiona Stafford has a whole book on trees and British culture, so the sample here is really on the well-trodden ground of Lewis, Le Guin and the other fantasy writers, with a quick glance at some other commentators. There are all sorts of woods to discover: here I will look only at two versions: the everyday and the transcendent, and I acknowledge my selection to be idiosyncratic: they are just extracts to draw attention to the glorious richness there is in the ways writers think of trees and woodland.

Alexander Porteous, in his 1928 book The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, gives forty pages over to 

…these sacred groves…watered by some consecrated fountain or river…surrounded by a ditch or mound to prevent the intrusion of strangers. No one was permitted to enter these consecrated groves except through the passage left open for the purpose. 

It is a work, rather like Watkins’ 1925 The Old Straight Track where speculation and the topological understanding of the author’s time are brought to bear, sometimes with some success (Watkins may have some methodologies we might challenge but sometimes his guesswork is impressive), on the phenomenon under discussion. Porteous has, for example, a peculiar view of palaeobotany that suggests people planted trees on sacred spots rather like C18th landowners – but what Porteous does do – perhaps unconsciously – is lay out a popular understanding of woodland as sacred landscape: 

They would have vague glimmerings of some power higher than themselves whom it was necessary to propitiate and to worship… The popular conception of the character of a grove is an assemblage of beautiful trees which together impart a peculiar beauty to the scene: the external forms of these trees possess so much beauty, and their overhanging boughs afford so welcome a shelter, that we need not wonder if in earlier ages groves were considered as fittest temples for the gods, and it was believed by the ancients that ghosts and spirits tool a delight in making their appearance there.” 

Porteous Ch IV

Holdstock and BB have interesting woodlands, at once fantastic and everyday. The woods of BB’s Little Grey Men are fantastic because they have gnomes in them, and the world is depicted from their diminutive point of view, so that Crow Wood is a place of menace dominated by the gamekeeper-ogre, and yet BB’s delight in the depiction of ordinary, everyday nature still comes through.

Their way now led them down a narrow grassy path hedged on either side with tall bracken. It had not yet reached its full stature for the tips were still curved over into little shepherd’s crooks. It made a fairy adventure of green on either side of the track, for the path they were on was only an animals’ ‘runway’. It wandered here and there, under brambles, round the stumps of trees, under fallen branches, in and out beneath dense blackthorn, and under the winding tendrils of wild honeysuckle. You or I could never follow it…

B.B. The Little Grey Men, ch 8, Giant Grum

Follow it, in the eyes of his gnomes, we do, of course, and debate game birds and private property as we go… The gnomes provide a new way of looking at woodland, a new height, and this adds to B.B.’s showing a world where size brings its own challenges and adventures to the resourceful little people. Themes of self-sufficiency return with similar power in his novel Brendon Chase where again, the author Denys Watkins-Pitchford displays his naturalist’s eye, and this wood, big enough for three boys to live in more or less undetected, is both the setting for the book and in some ways the star attraction. Here the boys are settling into an evening in the wood that is to be their runaway hideout all summer and autumn:

In the quiet of evening the nightingales were singing, whitethroats were bubbling their merry woodland music from the hazels and sallows, and now and again a pigeon passed over, high in the sunlight, its breast lit by the low rays of the setting sun.

One of them, spying the thick crown of the oak below it in the clearing, closed its wings, wheeled round, and cam to a clattering rest among the green leaves. It was amazing that so large a bird could alight so swiftly it seemed to pierce the wall of foliage with ease, almost as if it were an arrow.

B.B. Brendon Chase, Chapter 3, Gone to Ground.

In both woods, we are dealing with a key theme of penetration, a real (enough) wood that for the runaway Hensman brothers in Brendon Chase provides shelter as well as danger, and for the Little Grey Men a critical encounter with humans and the animals the humans have subjected to themselves. In Brendon Chase, it feels colonial, from the boys’ entering and settling in the wood to their parents in Simla; in The Little Grey Men the outdoors beyond the gnomes’ known world is dangerous: for me there is a sense of trespass amid the beauty. The passage from B.B, I cited here is echoed in the much more tangled and disturbing fantasy Mythago Wood, published some forty years later.

To call, it a path was overly to dignify the barely perceptible routeway between the towering oak trunks, winding up and down the ragged contours of the land. Dog’s mercury and fern strokes my legs: ageing brambles snagged my trousers; birds gave frantic flight above, in the darkening summer canopy… I seemed to arrive deeper in the edgewoods, and felt mildly triumphant.

R0bert Holdstock, Mythago Wood, Part Two: 9.

Ryhope, Holdstock’s expanding, dangerous, layered fantasy wood, is a landscape unlike any other. More disturbing than Tolkien’s Old Forest or Mirkwood, more claustrophobic than Fangorn, it defies conquering, demands acquiescence from those that penetrate its secrets. We are in the realm of fantasy, yet Holdstock still keeps the reader grounded in a recogniseable woodland – maybe this is where I find the greatest horror: that we are drawn into the occult through a series of obsessions and myths and timeslips (is that what they are?) yet encountering at first a tangled woodland of old fences and brambles B. B. would recognise.

The field treacherous with cow-pats… the tangle of rose briars, bramble and knee-high nettles…gnarled young oak trees….

Overture and beginners for a forested world where language is mangled, loyalties upended, a “natural order” questioned: things will get much more confused as the protagonist Steven enters the dark fantasy of the wood. Ryhope is a place of threat – and yet some of its terror comes from the balance of recognising the world of menace just inside the wood. Holdstock’s woodland is not so different from Brendon Chase – until you venture in deep, or its inhabitants come and find you.

At that point, to return to a real wood, I have to mention the wood grown up around the deserted village of Astercote: ‘Just the forest taking over again.” It is a representation of an ordinary woodland that shows the same love and care as B.B. demonstrates:

The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot, birds above and around, small ones flitting neatly from branch to branch, pigeons crashing noisily overhead. Sunlight crackled down through the leaves, dust spinning in the yellow shafts. A squirrel poured soundlessly down the trunk of a tree and vanished into the brambles: somewhere ahead a woodpecker thumped. It was a busy place, preoccupied with its own affairs.

Penelope Lively, Astercote, Ch 2

It reminds me of the search for ancient woodland in Oliver Rackham’s masterpiece, Trees and Woodlands of the British Landscape:

It is observed that woods with a long history, and especially ancient coppices, often have a richer flora than recently established woodland., and contain certain plants which the latter lacks. Continuity, management and development all contribute to the difference. An ancient wood will either have inherited species from the wildwood or – if secondary – will have had sufficient time to acquire all but the least mobile plants…The plant communities of an ancient wood will have had perhaps a thousand years in which to come to terms with management.

Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British landscape, ch 6: What woods now mean

We are back from Ryhope, back from Astercote, back in the real wood again, and can breathe.

But there is another view of woodland: the mallorn of Tolkein’s Lothlorien, the nameless yet named trees of Le Guin’s Grove, places of a slow redemption that Robert Macfarlane describes as the green where shadow meets leaf. The Immanent Grove on Roke – a high wood crowned in starlight –  makes some powerful appearances in the Earthsea sequence. In the last, the deeply troubled Alder – a significant name, just as Ged is called Sparrowhawk – explains he was able to sleep in the Grove:

Even at night I could sleep. In daylight, if the sun’s on me…if the warmth of the sun’s on me and the red of the sun shines through my eyelids, I don’t fear to dream. But in the Grove there was no fear at all, and I could love the night again.

The grove is a different thing from the tangled woods so far, a space of a more enlightening spirituality than a dangerous encounter. People have commented about the eerie Wood Between the Worlds in C S Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew as a place of almost lotus-eating forgetfulness, a place of letting go to the point of loss, of stupefaction – but if this near-oblivion might seem a disabling thing, and the quiet and warmth make the wood a place impeding action, it is worth looking at the Witch-Queen Jadis and her reaction: cruel, manipulative and decisive, she begs to be rescued from the place where her power is powerless, her desire to grasp is worthless. As my headquote suggests, this is not always easy: letting go and hearing the leaves can be a frustrating sort of learning, but with Porteous, the people who venture there experience glimmerings of some power higher than themselves in ways that are healing and sustaining. Jadis cannot bear it, Lucifer-like she cannot choose surrender; but Medra, the eponymous Finder in Le Guin’s novella and the man to whom the headquote belongs, is at least willing to start learning, and asks what the significance is of the Grove at the heart of the Mages’ experience, only to be told

You can learn about the Grove only in it and from it.

And in another of the Tales from Earthsea, locality and peace are discovered by Irian in the Grove into which the mage, the Master Patterner, has inducted her: To be there was enough, was all.

This episode gives Le Guin the opportunity for her best woodland manifesto:

She had no wish to explore for herself. The peacefulness of the place called for stillness, watching, listening; and she knew how tricky the paths were, and the Grove was, as the Patterner put it, “bigger on the inside than the outside.” She sat down in a patch of sun-dappled shade and watched the shadows of the leaves play across the ground. The oak mast was deep; though she had never seen wild swine in the wood, she saw their tracks here. For a moment she caught the scent of a fox. Her thoughts moved as quietly and easily as the breeze moved in the warm light.

Ursula K Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, Dragonfly.

The echo of the Tao seems very obvious to me. The named and nameless trees, the named and nameless Path, the path through the trees that is not fixed.

“How far does the forest go?” Medra asked, and Ember said,” As far as the mind goes.”

The Grove beyond the Mages’ Great House on Roke has a special place in my reading of Earthsea partly because what I might fancifully think of as my own Great House also has a Grove, a Deer Park, and maybe – maybeC S Lewis’ imagining the snowy woods of Narnia – but actually the woods closest to my time of reading Le Guin are the woods around the Harcourt Campus at Oxford Brookes. They have been a therapeutic space when times felt hard, a place to talk things over with friends – both from my need and theirs, a delight of solitarinesse. And, of course, they are the place where my Outdoor Learning students practise and play.

As one of the principal characters in Powers’ The Overstory puts it Our brains evolved to solve the forest… Forest and grassland, valley and high place: landscape formed how we think and feel.

George Monbiot in his chapter The Hushings in Feral explores this, and takes up the challenge of outdoor play with some typically (and movingly) lyrical praise:

Missing from children’s lives more than almost anything else is time in woods. Watching my child and others, it seems to me that deep cover encourages deep play, that big trees, an understorey mazed by fallen trunks and shrubs which conceal dells and banks and holes and overhangs, draw children out of the known world and into others. Almost immediately the woods become peopled with other beings, become the setting for rhapsodic myth and saga, translate the children into characters in an ageless epic, always new, always the same. Here, genetic memories reawaken, ancient impulses are unearthed, age-old patterns of play and discovery recited. 

George Monbiot: Feral: p169

And if as he says …the outdoors has an endless capacity to surprise,  we should recognise this capacity in the wide variety of woods in literature.

Whispers of Living

Or: Whose Voice in Nature Writing?

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

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

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

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

George Monbiot, Feral

or the poignant, almost despairing reflections of Peter Feinnes:

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

Peter Feinnes, Oak and Ask and Thorn

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

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

Alan Garner: Boneland.

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

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

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

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

Whispers of living, echoes of warning,

Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning.

Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein Mass

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

Beorht wæron burgræced….

Crungon walo wide..

Bright were the halls….

Slaughter spread wide….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Cowen “DNA” in Common Ground

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

*

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

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

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

Sing the Same Delight

We are in that odd time between the Solstice and St John’s Day: caught between astronomical and ritual midsummer? Similar disjunction happens at the Winter Solstice and Christmas/New Year, and while plenty of scholars comment on this (Hutton being most obvious), it made me stop and look about.

The meadow at midday is bright with flowers. Or come to be with Kipling’s Puck, out in the woods all night, a-conjuring Summer in, or get up early and see a fox as the mist is dispersing. The Brook is loud after the sudden, welcome rains. Hungry young Jackdaws squawk in the trees, and incautious young Great Tits inspect the remains of our breakfast. We are a long way – as far as we can get – from Cooper’s poem and Ellis’ artwork: deep shadows and people trudging through snow. That cold Standing-Still is now maybe the most powerful for Northern European culture; I cannot speak for any other.

A long way, too, from the wheeling round of yearly celebrations of the garlands of May, the fires of Midsummer and the feasts of Harvest and Midwinter – and from the births of Jesus and John the Baptist at opposite sides of the cycle. It is as if we have given them away with no thought as to to their worth – only to find, I think, that isolation in this time of crisis shows we have very little to substitute them. We lost much of the communal aspects Easter and Whitsun to COVID19, and we see what so much of our brain is occupied by – or at least what mine is taken up with – social media and telly and shopping. God help us.

If I look at what remains of the folk-Christian crazy paving, I see light and the play of light on growing things. The two photos in this post show my preoccupations: the carnival of flowers in what we might call “Churchill Meadows,” the grassland by the Churchill Hospital on the way to the woods and fens of the Lye Valley, and that very last glimmer of light on that very last day when the days are growing longer. We have a mix of festival fullness and a hint of what it to come.

Quite why the Winter Solstice is seen as a time of crisis – will the sun come back again? – when the sunset of the Solstice seems like the first intimation that in the midst of life we are in death Media Vita in Morte Sumus I can’t quite figure out. Perhaps I am simply lugubrious.

Plenty of evidence exists (and Ronald Hutton has a lot of them) for the Midsummer Fires being a major celebration. Ou sont les feus d’antan? A bonfire: is it a boon fire, a bane fire, a bone fire? It may be, as Hutton suggests, that Midsummer was about purification: a spiritual and physical (if we may distinguish) cleansing when the greatest fire in the traditional cosmos, the sun, was putting out most strength after being cooped up in the cold and wet. Maybe the cleansing follows after the Christian introduction of St John Baptist – and then I am back in Garner Country, and his hinting and probing the relationship between the cult of St John Baptist – Jenkin – and non-Christian rites. It is the bull-cult crowd that in his great novel Thursbitch Garner depicts as power and glory and terror as Nan Sarah looks down at the crowd gathered in the moonlight, celebrating sacrifice:

“Oh bonny Bull. Come thy ways…”

They were one swarm of noise…

Something was in the field. It grew from the mass, and yet was it, yet made it more, drawing the dark writhing to its own purpose , the yelling to its own tongue. What was there grew to reach the moon and gave one cry such as Nan Sarah had not heard in all her days: the cry of man and bull.

Alan Garner, Thursbitch, Chapters 12 and 13.

Garner has the mindset just right: the numinous presence that grows from the crowd; the celebrating – remembering that the roots of the word are in crowding, joining together – making something more. The crowd knows it at a Rugby match; at the singing of the Christus Vincit; it was felt at Leonard Cohen’s singing Hallelujah at Glastonbury; the crowd engaged in mystery sensing, in transcendence. Joining in; belonging; being there together.

Spirituality is about belonging in many ways, and celebrations show a communal aspect to a range of concerns. So we make celebrations out of what we can: birthdays, ours and others; arbitrary days to thank parents, teachers and so on. But such calendar points are double-edged. We encourage children to participate – and maybe indirectly to feel guilty when they don’t quite hit the mark? The ambiguity of the recent clapping for NHS workers is one example: thank you for this and that, but not in a way that acknowledges the enormity of your tasks. Or (as in my case) they take the edge off my family’s desire to celebrate Fathers’ Day by my finding it rather uncomfortable. But where else do I belong? As lockdown is relaxed more and more I feel its tensions more keenly in my desire to be united with people with whom I feel I belong, making ordinary places thin – full of something bigger than just me and my paltry resources, as I have discussed before. Mercer (cited in this Thin Places blog post) sees spirituality as having in its components

meaning-making, to relationships with others and to relationships with the sacred/transcendent

Mercer, J  (2006) Capitalizing on children’s spirituality: parental anxiety, children as consumers, and the marketing of spirituality

and I think I would add to this in that the relationship to the transcendent and the relationship with others having the actual or potential aspect of physicality. Belonging, it seems to me, is what we do by scent and touch as much as by sight and hearing: we are animals, after all, not disembodied ghosts.

So – although this is a short dash and still, like a dog in a field, off at so many different tangents – this is really only a quick dash into a very deep idea: that belonging has physical expression deep in its veins.

In the Winter Solstice

They carol, feast, give thanks,And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.

and this Summer evening I will raise a glass to the people I love whom I can’t be with, and hope they are singing the same delight, and the same hope for wholeness once again.

St John Baptist Eve: Old Midsummer Eve.

***

Postscript: I got up for the dawn this morning.

Texts for Difficult Times

Just a quick comment to contextualise these quotations: they are otherwise presented without interpretation – just in case anyone needs them in days when we need hope. Boy do we need it at the moment, and this weekend in particular seems a hard time. As I have prepared them it strikes me how almost scriptural they are: patristic and matristic readings for an Office of another culture.

I suppose I’m really putting them here because I need them. I have used them all before in various ways: the texts are referenced (sort of) by the URL embedded in the title: the URLs to elsewhere in this blog indicate where I have discussed the quotation or the writer in another post. Not all of them have such a link, of course.

I’m hoping, really, that they also stand as an advert for the longer texts from which they are taken. However, if you own the copyright for any of these extracts and don’t want these texts used like this, tell me and they’re gone.

So the first sees the characters whose adventures are set in Sutcliff’s vision of the “collapse” after the withdrawal of Rome: treachery, cowardice, offset by compassion and heroism.

“It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again.

Morning always grows again out of the darkness though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/11/11/hope/

And the next is the charge given to the children at the end of the sequence of The Dark is Rising, as Merlin, like Gandalf before him, prepares to sail away, with humanity very firmly in charge of its own destiny:

“For remember…that it is altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth…

For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and joy.”

Susan Cooper Silver on the Tree https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2018/02/07/end-of-the-matter/

“Sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold.” Rob Macfarlane, half a mile under Yorkshire, discusses what is left by previous lives:

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the mist leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes in fact all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Robert Macfarlane Underland https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/06/25/underland-thoughts-i/

And (hard to choose a section from this book: Sara Maitland on a wood in Scotland; Alan Garner deep (physically and spiritually) in among the alder near his home [where else?]); the question What should we do? from Richard Mabey then Paul Kingsnorth and a call to action:

If there is one thing that the current ecological crisis teaches us it is that we have got our relationships wrong, with woods as with nature more broadly. If we see a wood as a machine, we will behave very differently to the way we would behave if we saw it as an animal. Alive or dead, resource or living place: our attitude, our understanding, directs our behaviours.

Perhaps the old indigenous ways of seeing and the new revelations from scientific investigation might slowly help to change our attitudes, which in turn may help to change our behaviour. It might be a long shot, but it seems the best shot we have; maybe the only one. And I think it begins where so many of the best and oldest stories do: the woods.

Paul Kingsnorth “Forest of Eyes,” in Arboreal https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/02/20/the-first-tree-in-the-greenwood/

And Mary Oliver? Her poems are full of lines and sections of hope, of staring at a sudden bird or fox and seeing something of beauty and compassion in the event. There is a challenge in The Summer Day that is worth putting into this little gallery; the final idea in When Death Comes, too, is hard-nosed but hopeful; Why I Wake Early is oft-cited and very positive. Hard to choose just one, but I chose the last of these simply because this morning I was awake early, and out seeing fox and muntjac, and listening to all the birds:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/05/15/dipping-for-meanings/

And finally, in part to say “thank you” for all these paragraphs and their creators, Alice Walker, from her collection Living by the Word, on the continuing presence of people from history/”herstory” who have helped her and us:

The spirit of our helpers incarnates in us, making us more ourselves by extending us far beyond. And to that spirit there is no “beginning” as we know it (although we might finally “know” a historical figure who at one time expressed it) and no end. Always a hello, from a concerned spiritual ancestor you may not even know you had – but this could strike at any time. Never a good-bye.

Alice Walker “A Name is Sometimes an Ancestor Saying Hi I’m With You.”

Assorted Immortals

Some interestingly synchronous arrivals today.

I am reading – and enjoying – Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist. Quite apart from his candid dissection of his own mental states in a time of change, and what “nature” (my shorthand) gives him, Dara has a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase. He observes the origami of a bat taking flight; he points out that When you visit a familiar place it’s never stagnant. And so one arrival (I’m cheating here, so as to include this book) is my arrival with Dara and family at their new home in County Down.

We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, 14th August

I was also greeted – halfway through scrubbing the kitchen floor – by two books by Flora McDonnell: her collection of writing on Depression and her Out of a Dark Winter’s Night.

And a recommendation of another book – David Lucas’ The Wonderbird – suggests to me I might look again at spirituality and children’s literature. I will reserve The Wonderbird for another time, but want to think about spirituality in books at least accessible to children and young people.

Dara and his writing demonstrate powerfully and painfully his struggle with identity and mental health. Flora McDonnell likewise depicts her small child wandering in the dark, a moving image, beautifully illustrated, of a self not knowing but never giving up in search of personal integration, of “home.” So while this isn’t a review of Dara McAnulty or of either Flora McDonnell book, I do want to look again at some of the complex relationships about literature and spirituality these books lay open to view.

Of the various definitions of spirituality I’ve explored with students, the ones that talk about wrestling with a sense of meaning are often the ones I stumble over. It works for some – maybe it works for older readers. When you are four, there are questions that will lead up to this, but making sense of your life may not elicit challenges to a set of abstracts, but will very often concern affections, attachments, food, bedtime. An ‘ultimate sense of the meaning of life’ is seriously imperilled when a favourite toy gets lost in town or someone needs to buy a present and feels they cannot. These are everyday occurrences but in a good storyteller are recognised as having tremendous significance in the life of a young person. The line from Bettelheim I cited previously (and I’ll be coming back to Little Pete in a bit) about the all encompassing nature of a child’s emotional landscape needs to be taken into account when thinking of a child’s spirituality – but so, I think, does the complexity of that landscape: it is not a two-dimensional fairy tale, but a rich set of interlocking patterns, something Kathleen Harris likens to a kaleidoscope:

“Just as the images produced by the kaleidoscope are extremely complex, varied, and continuously changing, a young child’s spiritual development is similarly intricate, mysterious, and imaginative in nature and relational, interconnected, and directive to both the self and others within a community of learners that is continuously transforming.”

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 12, No. 3, December 2007, pp. 263–275

This is what makes children’s literature an amazing repository of dilemmas and questions around spirituality – and also a rather hard place to see the fundamental questions. Even defining spirituality is a maze of wordings, ideologies and ideas.

Older readers in the Primary phase – we might return to Gwyn in the Snow Spider – can encounter questions of the transcendent and of belonging frequently enough; what is now termed Young Adult literature has dilemmas in authors from Alan Garner to Patrick Ness. When dealing with spirituality, we have to look at the explicit and implicit ideologies of formal religion, and similarly at thinking that would usually reject those structures; at mental health and wellbeing, compassion: assorted gods* indeed! To simplify (or at least cut short) the argument, this is another of the authors I would present to the MA class on children’s spirituality: Tony Eaude’s definition of spirituality as

“…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…”

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, Exeter: Learning Matters

and it is perhaps with this definition that I can look at Children’s Literature and spirituality. It’s not about “making sense” or “struggle” but about finding a place for personal integration.

This is brilliantly illustrated by Dara McAnulty’s moving home: he does not spare the reader his anxiety or sense of loss, or the careful negotiation of new spaces and new relationships, and so good is he at the description that I am back in the move I found so difficult when I was but thirteen or so (a sort of reference to W J Turner). Of course, as a teenager writing a long text in diary form, what Dara gives us isn’t strictly speaking “children’s literature,” but the vivid self-searching, and the political uncertainties of his (and our) worries about the environment are very pertinent. Here, he and his family are settling into their new life, and watching bats and moths in the garden:

This is us standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and re-lived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering starts calmed a storm in all of is.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, 1st August

Flora McDonnell’s Out of a Dark Winter’s Night is also a tricky book to put in here because the illustrations – bold steps into dramatic landscapes with a child protagonist – might be seen a children’s literature, but then again they might not: is this about dual audience, or the use of one genre (reminiscent of John Burningham) for a different audience? I’m including it here, but I am aware of the complexities of that decision. It stands with Charlie Mackesy‘s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse as having some place in both the world of the illustrated children’s book and being a book dealing with adult themes illustrated in a style accessible to children.

[As an addendum, I might point anyone who is looking at this post towards my good friend Mat Tobin’s detailed and engaging blog post on looking at picturebooks: his post crossed with mine {hence my insertion here} and the illustrations I have used from Flora McDonnell are best understood from his development of theory around “picturebook codes.”]

The links to mental health would be a blog post – or a book or two – in their own right! Images themselves (a bit of a digression here) are revelatory: the wide sea like in Corey’s Rock, the marvellous play of light – and its absence: there is a shock in Flora McDonnell’s book of a dark sky with just a sliver of moon way up on the top left, and the threat of ultimate extinction – the pages were so dark I couldn’t do them justice. In thinking about evening and night it’s interesting to note how sunsets and bat flight seem to be part of a set of positive and calming images – batflight reminding me of that paean to Light in T S Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, 

Moon light and star light, owl and moth light…

T S Eliot https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/choruses-ôç£the-rockôçø

I said it was a digression – but of course beauty has facets that connect with/reflect back nature; spirituality likewise is interpenetrated by natural occurrences. Hopkins says it much better.

While there are books for a young readership that explore beauty and nature, there are books that are specifically “to do with spirituality,” too, of course: I think of Simon James’s anthology Days Like This, which presents beautiful vignettes of a child’s life, or the religious work of Tomie de Paola: there are others that look at Big Questions about love or death: Chabbert’s The Day I Became a Bird or Lunde and Torseter’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. I’ve tried to explore the possibility of existential threat elsewhere, but other questions also arise: Who am I? Why am I like this? Why are things the way they are? At one level, most high quality picture books will ask this kind of question.

I may be creating a circular argument here: high quality texts are in some way “about” spirituality because they ask these questions: the issues of spirituality in texts for children are a marker of high quality. I need to think about this – but certainly subject matter, wording and artwork do contribute to effective communication around the Big Questions. They don’t need step-by-step clarity, still less a glib answer; but they need an affective element, something to draw in the reader, to lead us to an appreciation of beauty, or belonging, or transcendence.

Little Pete‘s succession of good days takes an interesting turn in story 11, Pete and the Sparrow. Chasing a cat that is after a bird, Pete ends up walking on a wall and finds a baby bird.

Pete looked at it. It was a very little bird.

He sat down on the wall, and put his face quite close to it. The bird blinked its bright eyes at him.

Very slowly Pete put out a finger and stroked the little bird on the head. It was soft and warm and knobbly.

Then he put out his finger and did it again, because he had never done such a thing before. Then for a long time he looked right into the bird’s eyes and the bird looked at him.

Then he jumped off the wall and started to walk up the hill again

This quiet, unplanned encounter is a wonder: a wonder to Pete in the story, but also to us as readers: while the story, as ever, has Pete complaining when the bird spotter he meets doesn’t say “please,” central to it is this quiet awe and concern for the baby bird. His reactions are understated – the author, Leila Berg, does do well in not giving us a long explanation: Pete leaves the bird once, and then again when the baby bird is settled, but the chapter ends, tellingly:

Yes, that was a special day.

There is a healing in the ways in which nature impinges on the crises in these narratives. Dara’s world turns a little as the origami of a bat unfolds and flies, and the moths and the stars come out; Flora’s tired, journeying child turns to home. And Pete goes on his way singing.

*The title of this blog post? It’s a laconic quotation from U A Fanthorpe’s poem “Water Everywhere.” In a comic/serious voice she explores the role of water in the modern society:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.

Officially they honour assorted immortals

In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

A mention of water when thinking of spirituality does not come amiss. Maybe this is for another day…

In the branches and among the stones

Sitting in the garden this morning (such is my practice, especially at the moment in these sunny days at the end of Eastertide) I could hear the birds – mostly blackbirds and belligerent robins, I think – in the trees and bushes: all that singing made me think of the great Pentecost sequence we hear (this year at live-streamed Mass: the Dominican melody and a translation are at the end of this blog post) – and that in turn sent me to check the Latin of the psalm in front of me, Psalm 103 or 104 depending on which version you’re using.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys…

The wild asses quench their thirst.

On their banks dwell the birds of heaven:

From the branches they sing their song.

It is a great hymn to the natural world – I think, sometimes, in a more humanistic age, certainly a post-Romantic one we think less about how much “nature poetry” there is in the Bible. Job is magnificent; the Psalms – as well as having all sorts of other issues and emotions – are a wonder.

However, in this case there is an interesting discrepancy between the Vulgate translation of Psalm 103 (104) and the revised psalter and Grail Translation. It comes down to the Vulgate saying that the birds sing “from the middle of the stones” (De medio petrarum dabunt voces) and the 1945 revision of the Psalms having them in the trees “inter ramos.” My Hebrew really isn’t up to going back to the orginal, but with the help of Bible Hub and a dictionary it seems “among the branches” (mibben ‘opayim) is right.

I will develop this as a less overtly theological reflection in a minute, but my first point is this image of the birds in among the rocks, rather than in the lush vegetation of my allotment or beside the flowing waters that so often are the Biblical image of peace and fecundity. That’s because it strikes me as apt and poignant that this Easter we have been singing in among the rocks, like little birds picking at odd seeds in dry stony places.

I don’t think this is simply a Christian image – or if it is, that’s because that imagery is so deep in our psyche that it is inescapable. There is another side to this in that at a very deep human level we crave the lush, damp woodland, and the fertility that it promises, whether an external grace or the lavish generosity of nature:

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray

Morning Prayer, Mary Oliver

But this has not been a lush time for many, faced with huge boulders of limitations or tiny pebbles stuck in our shoes. Loudest we have heard (and rightly listened to) narratives of impotent rage in the face of suffering; fierce political rhetoric in the face of duplicity and mismanaged expectations; fear, at the most basic of dying or losing people we love. We have been lucky, here in middle England, to have a hot, sunny spring time to give us joy, but underneath it has been the fear of extinction, of never seeing a dear friend again. When writing to someone recently about the death of our Dean and friend Brian Findlay I used the phrase “losing touch” to someone, and thought what a strange image that is in these non-tactitle days. Then I read Susie Dent on the language of touch, where she acknowledges the double life of these words seems oddly fitting: unbidden, a wish-list of hands I want to hold, people I want to hug flooded in. Stony times of loss and bereavement.

Today, I like the idea that we are little birds picking for seeds in among the stones, so here (for me at least) in this great hymn is one of those seeds. In the Christian context this might be seen as the proper gift of the Holy Spirit: at a very human level and without religious affiliation, this is the gentle breathing of meditation, especially in vv 4, 7 and 8, cooling me when I am het up, comforting, a break in the heat of the day; something that washes, that irrigates. A lush place, cool, private and cleansed beneath the trees (Mary Oliver again). An event or a force (are either of these the right word?) for Compassion.

Dipping for Meanings

I presented the work of Geoffrey Bache Smith earlier this week, and I was wondering about who I might look at among other poets and writers of various kinds that explore their environment. Other poets? OK: I was browsing Mary Oliver’s second volume I came across this poem. No less plangent than Bache Smith in many ways, and with a great, straightforward look at a little bird she saw so long ago. Some thoughts follow, but the poem really does say it without my squawking.

Dipper

Once I saw

in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,

among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,

a small bird, and knew it

from the pages of a book; it was

the dipper, and dipping he was,

as well as, sometimes, on a rock-peak, starting up

the clear, strong pipe of his voice; at this,

there being no words to transcribe, I had to

bend forward, as it were,

into his frame of mind, catching

everything I could in the tone,

cadence, sweetness, and briskness

of his affirmative report.

Though not by words, it was

more than satisfactory way to the

bridge of understanding.  This happened

in Colorado

more than half a century ago –

more certainly, than half my lifetime ago –

and, just as certainly, he has been sleeping for decades

in the leaves besides the stream,

his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh

comfortable even so.

And still I hear him –  

and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles

he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,

his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love –

and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,

and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember

your name, great river,

but since that hour I have lived

simply,

in the joy of the body as full and clear

as falling water; the pleasures of the mind

like a dark bird dipping in and out, tasting and singing.

And the first thing I wanted to note was that WordPress – measuring characters and words alone – says that this poem will take a minute to read. Scan down that, highlight a bit, move on. If I’m honest, Morning Prayer was a lot like that today. Did I actually say the Benedictus? I remember when I was seventeen (in the 70s) assisting at an old rite Mass – what would now be called the Extraordinary Form – where the priest got through the whole liturgy in ten minutes: a liturgical patter song I found it hard to keep up with. Such, perhaps, is familiarity, or maybe such is reading until we fine-tune that as something that is reading for the deepest meanings possible.

And with Dipper there are two I want to think about.

The first is MO’s choices of image and words. She is a writer who is wildly in love with each day’s inventions (“Of What Surrounds Me”) and who looks – as in Dipper – for the moment that excites the human response: gratefulness, compassion. One of her most popular poems, “Why I Wake Early” is, like Dipper, of this kind: a noticing of a something; a realisation of the importance of that event; an answer from the writer, and similarly the poem “Wild Geese” – with the line You do not have to be good which first brought her to my scattered attention – and “Landscape,” quoted here, where the crows as seen as realsiing thier dreams as they break off from the rest of the darkness/ and burst up into the sky. She challenges with these perceptions of natural events; the reader is confronted with the suggestion, the question sometimes, of how to seize the world with the same freshness as a grasshopper, or a bird.

Even this cannot be read quickly, or if it is skimmed through – I find I cannot read more than a couple before I “feel full” – I find I miss the impact of these sermons from nature, even from lines like these, from “When Death Comes.”:

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

The second is an occurrence which suggests why this poem appeals to me. Visiting my daughter Lizzie in Edinburgh we went on a bus trip to Penicuik and off into the Pentlands. We saw a Dipper. I had known them since I took the Tell Me Why magazine in the 60s; I had seen them in Scotland once before. This, however, was a chance to sit and watch as the little bird zipped about and hopped in and out of a little burn just below the reservoir. I now recognise, having read the Mary Oliver poem above, those attributes of sweetness, and briskness she writes about. Slow watching of a bird – slow reading of a poem – the appreciation of the poem having observed the bird – the reading of the poem enlightening the memory of the bird: a virtuous circle in which understanding of the natural event and the reading of the poem are mutually supportive.

And then what about these Mary Oliver challenges to live life to the full? How does this first yes not negate a whole load of other choices? How do we distentangle “what comes with the package” from other choices we just let happen when we make a choice for A rather than B? Choices I made in my teens or twenties have implications even today, and life in my sixties seems just as precious but carries with it the ache of mistaken choices, baggage of all sorts. Hard not to feel like this at the moment: all those pre-lockdown times I went to a Garden Centre rather than out onto the hills – but then how would the allotment have been dug? I suspect Mary Oliver would suggest we look over the shoulder of such anxieties to the dippers and heron and crickets, or the jay as I dig, or Mat’s discovery on our trip of a Bloody Nosed Beetle?

Another final set of lines, then, from Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day:”

Doesn’t everything die and last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

But it is a Summer morning, and maybe I need to do more than write about it.

Landscape and Community

Chris Lovegrove and I have been trying to explore aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider together: this blog post forms part of the concluding dialogue between me and Chris. In this week’s blogs we are answering the same questions, but doing so, to some extnent “blind:’ we have agreed our two questions and then we are posting our blogs on the same day.

Here’s the first, posed by Chris:

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider’s cultural matrix)? 

My response: I’ve been to Wales four times: once to Conwy and Betws-y-Coed on a coach trip with a pile of nuns when I was nineteen;  once, in 2000, to the Brecon Beacons to get soaking wet while training as a Forest School Leader in the pouring rain; once to stay in a cottage at the foot of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. My  last visit, rather later in my life, was to help at a Quality Assurance event in Carmarthen. My understanding of Wales is therefore built on brief and specific visits – and at no time have a stayed in a claustrophobic valley like in The Owl Service, nor really had any dealings with Welsh hill farmers beyond being told a footpath was no longer in use. So what, therefore, is my response to the landscape in The Snow Spider? How realistic do I need it to be?

It was not a high mountain, nor a dangerous one. Some might even call it a hill. It was wide and grassy, a series of gentle slops that rose, one after another, patterned with drystone walls and windblown bushes. The plateau at the top was a lonely place, however. From here only the empty fields and surrounding mountains could be seen and, far out to the west, the distant grey line of the sea.

This is Nimmo’s early setting the scene. Gwyn ascends the mountain to practise his powers, but here we are being told simply what the upland looks like. There is a lot, of course, that a reader (particularly, perhaps a reader of Gwyn’s age) might want to disentangle in the language and topology: How can a hill be a mountain? What’s a plateau? As we sort out the vocabulary of place in a possibly unfamiliar place at the start of the narrative, we are on the cusp of a deeper understanding, almost a curtain-raiser for the mythic and developmental battles young Gwyn is beginning to engage in.

But in order to come close to Chris’ enquiry I feel I need to distinguish between the everyday depiction and the descriptions that that move the story along. Michael Bonnett and certainly Michael Farrelly seem to suggest that “human-environmental interrelationships” are aided by powerful storytelling. We have that here, in Jenny Nimmo’s three Magician Trilogy novels. In the Snow Spider it seems to me that the author chooses weather as a way of inviting her readers into the hill farms, rather than more explicit topography. Here, for example, in Chapter Eight the young magician is poised to fight in the face of a snowstorm:

There was a sudden stillness and the mountain held its breath. Clouds of snow began to gather on the summit; they intensified and rolled downwards in a vast, ever-thickening ice-cold wave.

It is atmospheric writing of a high order. Nimmo has brought us to this point by vivid and intensifying descriptions of weather in a hill country. From much earlier in the story, this is the arrival of a November gale, the first major encounter with wind as an elemental, magical force:

Then, one Sunday, the wind came; so quietly at first that you hardly noticed it. By the time the midday roast had been consumed, however, twigs were flying, the barn door banging, and the howling in the chimney loud enough to drive the dog away from the stove.

The storm, a dominant motif – and an important factor when anyone is up in a mountainous region – will come to provide the wintry arena for a final conflict . Even Gwyn’s prosaic father Ivor has to admit it is “a damn peculiar kind of wind” ; by doing so we come to understand that this is a hard life, and see quite how the tragedy of Gwyn’s older sister being lost on the mountain might have occurred. In these earlier sections, however, Nimmo is also careful to give us little domestic details: the barn door, the dog, the stove… So I come (finally) to Chris’ question: Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting?

I think it does. Part of the power of the depiction of Gwyn’s father (see below) is that he is ordinary; the ambiguities of learning to be a wizard are all the more painful for Gwyn than the flamoyant Owls from Hogwarts and cartoon familial abuse are for Harry Potter because in Gwyn’s story they are depicted as taking places in a believable world. Nimmo leads her readers through the fields with open gates, cows that need milking, the circle of trees where the septic tank lies… and into a world of magic spiders and a past full of ancient tales. It’s a clever way of convincing the reader of the reality of the Gwyn’s challenge as he grows – but for a little more of this, see below.

The second is posed by me:

2: The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world – mobile ‘phones, internet & c (shown in the new TV version) the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

I started by wanting to consider the Hui Clos of Pendewi, the village in the Snow Spider, but of course the most famous line from Sartre’s play is L’enfer c’est les autres, and the more I ponder the community the less sure I am of this. There are family tensions here, and the neighbourly relationships of a small village, but these are not people trapped in Hell together, but a Pobol y Cwm, a people of the valley. When Alun, Gwyn’s friend, is lost in the storm, the ‘grapevine” works fast to rustle up a search party. When Bryn and Gladys Davis confront Gwyn’s family about Gwyn injuring their son Dewi it is uncomfortable – but not on an epic scale. Gwyn is like many a child who needs to make sense of his family as he grows: what does his family history tie him to? Does he like being with them? As with landscape (above), it is the ordinariness that provides the power to the scene and to the magic that interrupts it.

The new TV version gives some nod to the passing of time since the original publication of the Nimmo books, starting in 1986, in that there is some mention of the internet, and the watch Gwyn gets as a birthday present in the book has become a tablet (with remarkably good connection). This in turn allows some further plot exposition, some idea of the past which Gwyn is inheriting. It also serves to underline that very odd nature of the old Welsh manuscript the young magician reads. As a reflection on the updates in the series it works well.

Does this make the actual text creak at all in retrospect? I didn’t think so. The IPad/tablet would have been no further use in the story than the rewrite has allowed it. (In pondering updates I did think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where for the tragic failures of communication to take their toll, the modern audience needs not to think how simple a quick couple of texts or emails could have sorted everything). Gwyn’s father’s quad bike was a nice touch, too: this was a family more like Emmerdale (or God’s Own Country) than Cold Comfort.

But what of magic in the modern world? Where might the Tylwyth Teg live now? For Alice Thomas Ellis the uncomfortable magic of the Welsh tradition in Fairy Tale suggests they live where they have always lived: in edgelands, woods, odd meadows and lanes with a strange feel to them, very much alive in the affairs of humans. In Pendewi, the stories live on by being reenacted (more explicitly in the later books in the trilogy), and the parallels with Garner’s The Owl Service are many, from common roots in the Mabinogi to the recurrence of tensions dating back into myth and legend. Where is the magic? In both books (“all the books,” if we count the Ellis, the Garner, all three by Nimmo and Susan Cooper [who will come into my next post]) it is frighteningly close: it exhibits in the fallible humans who cross its path. (Just as it would be amusing to think up how M R James’ stories could be updated effectively, it would also be a challenge to think quite where his ghosts might reside now: in mobile numbers that link to conspiracy theories long dead, catalogues whose URL summon destruction, internet stalkers whose only real presence is to hunt the curious through the pdfs of manuscripts…) But Nimmo’s Gwyn, it seems to me does not needs this. It is his ordinariness that saves him. Tensions between generations, Ivor Griffiths’ incoherent anger at his family’s loss, the petty rivalries of the playground: these are universal enough to contain the introduction of the internet, while a small village up in the hills (Chris may take a different view) may not be able to rely on mobile signal quite as much as I do for sustaining its relationships.

Chris and I are planning to post our blogs on 4th May, having not seen one another’s responses. Do please visit https://calmgrove.wordpress.com to see what Chris has made of these two questions.

Edgelands

Uffington is a glorious sweep of downland, a sleeping body under wide skies.

The path between Cat’s Tor and Shining Tor is a magical place, with suns’ rising tattoed into the outlines of the escarpment, and in the hills beyond, Ludchurch, that thin place.

Santorini, Monreale, the arena in the ruins of Salona above Split… Hemingford Grey, Malham…

These have been “event spaces” for me, places where even going there means something.

Lockdown means that Uffington remains the event place that I last visited, unreachable except in my mind’s eye; Thoon is as beyond me as Monreale. And as for those big, bold holiday destinations, well, I wonder whether, as I ponder the urgencies beyond the virus attack, I will ever see these tourist places again. Maybe as “events” we see them, glory in them, and carry them with us.

And then there’s Boundary Brook.

I could, at the moment, call it Rat City: plenty of lively inhabitants of the Rattus Norvegicus kind scurrying around, and I wonder when the fox population will move in, or the badgers and hawks and owls step up…. and this is part of the problem with Edgelands: they are a stark mixture of human-stuff-we-like and animal-stuff-we-like with human-stuff-we-don’t-want and animal-stuff-we-don’t-want. Stark? Or vibrant?

If we are looking for writing that conveys the vibrancy of such spaces, then Rob Cowen can give it to us: at one point in Common Ground he writes that

the edges provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature… We all still go to edges to get perspective…

and elsewhere

The ebb and flow of birdsong, the rise and fall of the sun, such things became my world. The slow spinning of the earth, the circadian rhythm is of the solar day, the life and death of the flowers and fruits, these whirred the mechanisms of my mended biological clock.

But the great Annie Dillard can also add to this vision.

Now [she is writing of late June] things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed… and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide. I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil’s advocate and call it rank fecundity-and say that it’s hell that’s a-poppin.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. 10: Fecundity

Cowen and Dillard give me two quite different views that I can take with me into the wildlife corridor that leads from by my house down to Boundary Brook and then extends onto Warneford Meadow. Despite its grandiose name, this is a strip – or a plait of interwoven strips – of self-seeded trees, wild clematis, ivy, Wild Garlic, squirrels, a pair of sparrowhawks, old fences demarking a different pattern of land use, an electricity substation, and (as is very obvious in a night time ramble) the street lights from Old Road and the car park lights from the labs and libraries of the campus buildings. So to make sense of this edgeland, I have to turn to two further sources: the book by Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley that gave me (and lots of other people, I suspect) the word Edgelands, and Richard Mabey.

First of these concluding words, then, are an extract from Richard Mabey and his Unofficial Countryside:

…It’s not often that the scrubland stage is reached. Where it is, it is in those awkward-shaped parcels of ground – left over like a hem when the surrounding areas have been sewn up – often called ‘marginal land.’ These seem to be multiplying with the piecemeal extension of built-up areas: a sliver of land left over between two strictly rectangular factories, a disused car dump, the surrounds of an electicity substation. Nothing can be done with these patches. They are too small or misshapen to build on, too expensive to landscape. So they are simply ignored – at least until the bushes start shutting out the light from the machine-shop. For that spell of ten or twenty years they form some of the richest and most unpredictable habitats for wildlife to be found in urban areas…

The Unofficial Countryside: Bearings

and (almost) last words to Symmonds Roberts and Farley:

It’s always a surprise… To find a gap in the shiny advertising boardings or a bent back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a few onto an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer… The city suddenly has a new scale and underness and an overness. 

The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communing with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.

This is what the Edgelands represent, an No mans land between the two sides…

I wrote “almost” because the typing of that quotation was initially overridden by the computer, unexpectedly throwing up a very different (and much more dramatic) touchstone on the constantly shifting border: Rob Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood’s disturbing meditation Ness – in that my text at one point read “and under Ness and an over Ness.” So I turn to this shattering prose-poem about the fall of a Babylon to the greater Principalities of wood and water and lichen, and find similarities with the rotting stumps and rusting gateways of where I run.

The encounter in the poem of the Powers of Nature with the grim purposes of humanity is exposed in an “environmental takeover,” and the willow-boned, hagstone-eyed entities that possess the nuclear defence site do so in their own time:

& time to them is not deep, not deep at all, for time is only ever overlapping tumbling versions of the now.

It has about it the bitter vision of triumph after oppression of the Book of Revelation; ruination; shattering; repossession. In the same way in the Edgelands, the everyday submits to the unbounded potential of weed sycamore and umbel and the run of the brook as the spring puts out, in Robert Macfarlane’s words, the green where shadow meets leaf.