GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing
I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that
The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …
K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.
Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.
While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as
A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.
Illusions and Resurrections selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson
but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.
People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.
And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.
The characters are “between worlds” ( a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.
Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.
It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Edward as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.
*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]
…and liddle lamzy divey, as the song goes. Words baffle, words elucidate, words induct you into a club – or exclude you. Consider this opening sentence to chapter one of a book I was looking at last night:
The vascular plants, or tracheophytes, which possess specialised conducting system include four phyla of the plant kingdom: 1, Psilopsida (chiefly fossils); 2, Lycopsida (clubmosses); 3, Sphenopsida (horsetails) and 4. Pteropsida (ferns, gymnosperms or cone-bearing seed plants, and angiosperms or flower-bearing seed plants).
Abraham Fahn: Plant Anatomy, second ed. (1974)
Does it invite? Intrigue? How much there can I read (if reading is decoding)? How much of this can I read (if reading includes understanding)? I suppose I am thinking about this because I have been reading the book I ought now to call Clements and Tobin (“I hope you all did the reading from Clements and Tobin this week? Good.”), Understanding and Teaching Primary English, with its detailed account of all sorts of aspects of reading in Early Years and Primary education and (key to my point here) the holistic, contextualised and meaningful reading experiences which convince children of the purpose and pleasure behind reading.
What I miss from Fahn is that contextualising element. It’s not his fault: I have plunged in medias res with trying to learn technical building-blocks terms form an advanced book. In other words, as Maggie gently pointed out to me “I do have some more basic books if you like.”
A bit of Greek is my way in, but leads to more and more questions. Psilopsida are naked forms (and I now see the term is no longer used); are Lycopsida wolf-shaped – but why? Sphenopsida are wedge-shaped forms (yes, I’m looking them up by now) but what gives Pteropsida their winged shapes? I enter a maze of definitions and four paths open in front of me – my only guides the indices of books and a bit of etymology. Gymnosperms I knew both parts to, and could work out, but find at this point that I do not understand why they are gymnos, why naked; and I do not (yet?) understand what vessel or container holds the seed for an angiosperm. What does endo- mean in endosperm? A further level of comprehension is needed, more knowledge to understand what these things do, to understand why we have called them what we have. I am learning the words on this first page of chapter one like I learned the details of W S Gilbert lyrics (still not sure what dimity is here, in the Pirates of Penzance) or like, as an unlatinate child, I learned the Credo. In the right place, at the right time (and with the right people to support and inspire) these strange utterances have their own power. No wonder magic is often brought to life in spells, in words in a particular context.
Heaney, in his wonderful poem In Illo Tempore (text here) attests to the power of language: The verbs/ assumed us. We adored. And we lifted our eyes to the nouns… It is this power that provides me with motivation, just as the experience of being able to explore with my Vygotskian more knowledgeable peer (i.e. my Maggie!) gives context to my wondering. But as I think about how I dig about for meanings in an unfamiliar context, I think again about how I fight shy of the technical terms I am more used to.
I have no idea if a scandicus is a term in plant anatomy – maybe putting it in the title of this blog was just a bit naughty – but it is a term in in chant notation. We could start with a list of words a bit like Fahn does, and, like the intended readers of his Plant Anatomy, a beginner in chant could learn quilisma, pressus, podatus and the rest. The Liber Usualis, a sort of compendium of resources for western Church chant, takes this approach. In a similar way, a young altar server might learn responses and prayers and be drawn into the cadences of the text of the Mass (see Heaney, above), or – a more everyday experience in early learning – the glory of the names of dinosaurs (and I do love this list). However, the nomina nuda do not tell us much, unless you delve into word derivation. A passage from the Liber Usualis such as this:
Scandicus and climacus: these groups may be made up of three, four or five, or more notes…Not to be confused with the Scandicus, [the salicus] can be recognised by the vertical episema placed under one of the notes.
Liber Usualis, 1959
is as inscrutable without a guide as are Lycopsida and Pteropsida, Amygdalodon or Riojasaurus.
What does a reader need? One thing my dive into plants this week has shown me again is that we are all, if we let ourselves, learning to read. There is a power and a joy in reading a text or reading a landscape that for me is enhanced by an enriched vocabulary and a facility for diving into detail. So what the support do we need, whatever our age? Well, to look again (in conclusion) to a lesson straight out of Mat and James’s book, we need Margaret Meek‘s human connection, someone to read with us, to tread the path with us, pointing out this feature of a plant, or singing along with us or appreciating the teeth of a large therapod.
There is, of course, the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, praising the chance warming of the earth by the sun that I cited in the post Texts for Difficult Times: to ease us with warm touching,/ to hold us in the great hands of light… and when I woke at 04:40, (far too) early today I could have wished I’d had learned the poem.
And in the opening scene of Anouilh’s Antigone, the eponymous protagonist almost deceives us into thinking she has just been out exploring the glories of the early dawn:
Dans les champs, c’était tout mouillée, et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j’étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n’était pas moi qu’on attendait…
It was cold – sandals, t-shirt, trousers weren’t quite enough. And damp, with mud from the May rains, with dew in the long grass. And oddly noisy. Antigone might have been aware of the noise she made, but I was aware of passing traffic, the waste disposal truck in the Old Road Campus and all the other hums and buzzes the buildings make. And then, in the shadow of the dip towards the brook, the sound of birds and water.
There really are few things as precious as the quiet morning where the running water and the songbirds are an obbligato to the experience. Is this because they signify food and water somewhere deep in my brain? I am struck by the question that looks bigger and bigger the more I look at it: why do we find these things beautiful?
Antigone is right: this wasn’t a show waiting for me to take my seat, and while we might take delight that the happy birds are singing their Te Deums (the reference is first to Mrs Oldknow, but I think Lucy Boston is referring to this Maytime hymn), their cries are for territory, for food, for sex.
Oh, but hang on a minute: does that mean that birds being birds isn’t exactly what they should be doing? And if you see any sort of purpose or numinous element to a dawn chorus, does it need to be imposed on the birds actually supplying the music? Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins (maybe) have it right: to glory in these things, simply to see
…all around us
of original fire
Mary Oliver: Humpbacks
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Binsey Poplars
might involve us using these as image, symbol, metaphor – but the thisness of the birds and the brook really doesn’t need me to be there. Mary Oliver is almost brutal in her version of this message:
…there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted –
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
Mary Oliver: Morning Poem
And from a theological standpoint, I can’t impose on the crows, the woodpecker, the thrushes my human-shaped pieties. The Te Deum of a bird is to be a bird. So to end here is Roger Deakin’s account of his own waking early, and hearing the birds around his Suffolk house:
It is actually quite noisy with birdsong here, all concentrated into a mile of hedgerows – full, wide, dense hedges like the ramparts of a castle. A kind of maze of them surrounds the little friend, and the birds love them for making nests. So there is great competition amongst all the birds for space, for a few square yards of territory, and do they sing longer and louder and more lustily… And for a bird the most important aspect of household management is singing. Perching as high up as you can and singing for as long and as hard as you can.
It is hugely tempting to fill a blog that I’ve given headings like this with photos of holidays and trips I have had. Ruins I have visited, cities I have met and loved. Let me get some out of the way.
It may give the impression I have seen all sorts of wonders all round the world but I am not really very well travelled: unlike my dad whose Moominpappa-like Misspent Youth included trips in the Merchant Navy to Japan, South Africa and all sorts of places, my furthest trips have been to the Gambia for work, and holidays in Europe. And yet for some people this is a lot of travelling: my Mum saw France, but no further, and for some, finance or responsibilities or fear of flying put journeys out of reach. For nearly twenty years – as a young dad – I didn’t have a current passport.
So when I see the suggestion that people need or deserve a holiday abroad I can’t help but baulk at the idea. It’s not the air miles and pollution, although that does worry me increasingly (and I do like trains anyway: waking up on the train to Provence to see a field of sunflowers was as amazing, in its way, as the romance of Paris in the early morning after the Nuit Blanche trip on ferry and train from Victoria in the 70s). No, it’s not even the “Bali or Brighton” divide: I think its the notion of deserving something or needing it being confused with wanting something very badly or having your expectations denied. “You can’t have that wish” is something we find alien to our mindset – although in a not-so-distant-past it is a recurring response to Little Bear‘s wishes.
So I’ve wandered (rather aimlessly) through some of the literature on desert – starting from the ideas of “deserving degrees” – and came across this, very much off my usual track:
It may simply be the folly of the gods, to make us act out for one another, for their amusement, when ultimately little is accomplished…Whether in our conjugal relations, our political systems, our commercial interactions, even in our cultivation of art and science, there is illusion and deception
Kevin Hoover in Copp, D., & Sobel, D. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other
And perhaps that “acting out” is really the key to the problem. As George MacDonald puts it – or rather how C S Lewis in the mouth of MacDonald puts it:
There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self- Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.’
C S Lewis, The Great Divorce
In other words, we are keen to say we need and deserve in order to grandstand our desires; we would choose unhappiness as a lever to get what we want. It is caricatured in the anonymous ditty
Is very ill
And nothing will improve her.
Until she sees
And waddles through the Louvre.
But often it is an illusion. This isn’t about help when someone is physically or mentally ill, but I think we have to see that Madam Dill does not need her trip to Paris any more than this pundit or that feels anything more serious than serious disappointment when they cannot get to their favourite quaiside taverna. I may (to come to my subtitle) love the very stones of Villeneuve lez Avignon be sad not to see them, but we deceive ourselves by thinking that this disappointment is something the cosmos has engineered to rob us of our rights. We might find some balm by visiting our places of significance, from the pub for a pint onwards, but I suspect that in many cases this is not the same as desiring them fervently. Lockdown in COVID times has heightened some of my needs and wishes to almost silly levels, and I do really miss my friends, my family, some amazing places I had planned to see this year – but I have to recognise that somewhere in my “I want it very badly” is just “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick” – and while the lack makes me sad, I am not likely in all honesty to be able to say “I deserve…”
So to conclude, and maybe to cheer me up, are some places of significance – I won’t embarrass anyone by putting people – that I do want to see really badly at the moment. Here is the Firth of Forth, all flat sands and rock pools and Eiders, a place (and people) I associate with freedom and quiet and love.
Or – and these last two are no surprise if you have followed my journeys at all – that I have to include as places that mean a lot to me, the Tors in the Cheshire borderlands, and that Monreale-like face in the rocks at Ludchurch.
I was up early this morning; I ran out of sleep in the way that you might finish a cup of tea: just like an empty cup with no more tea to drink, there was no more sleep to be had. I went for a walk, listening to the birds doing the Me-Me-Me of the Dawn Chorus, and came home to read Morning Prayer and some Mary Oliver – her Morning Poem with its wonderful imagery:
if your spirit carries within it
the thorn that is heavier than lead– if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging–
there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted
Mary Oliver, Morning Poem
And so I can start with her challenge to dare to be happy, and with it, for this Earth Day season, come the Edgelands wood bluebells and ransoms and the warming days I turned to a couple of years ago in the singing of James Taylor and his praise of May:
Yes the winter was bitter and long
So the spring’ll be sweet
Come along with a rhythm and a song
Watch creation repeat.
When I blogged that quotation I had, of course, no idea about how bitter and long the next winter, 2020/21, was to be even though, as I said then, lyrics alone don’t cut it.
And they still don’t: the jolly springtime needs humanity to think of itself differently, to act differently. On my walk today I traced where I think a development has marked out cutting through the wood. Trees will be felled, birds displaced. The wood used to have foxes; I don’t see them any more. Will the owls survive? I did have a magical trudge this morning, watching the light broaden but hearing also the growing rumble of traffic. I came home and read Mary Oliver and all her prophetic acceptance of a natural world of lilies and ponds and rising light, and (to cite another of her poems) willing myself to
Tell about it.
Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”
But as well as the world outside the study door, there are ways in which spring creeps over the windowsill – notably for this blog post the depictions of spring in children’s literature. Most recently Scallywag Press have sent me some corkers: Rob Ramsden and Antoinette Portis to add to a collection of books exploring “nature” in a very particular way, one that is written in big letters in Lent and Easter, in the changing season that is Spring.
Rob Ramsden’s three books with Scallywag are a joy: a simple text, some bright, flat illustrations of a couple of children in the outdoors beaming with delight as the seed grows, puzzling over the green pumpkin, sad as the sunflower dies, scared of the bee – and I must say that the simple shapes of Rob’s children are wonderful, a brilliant evocation of young children’s body language… There is a beautiful, plain honesty about the stories in all three books.
As with her book Hey, Water (that I’ve commented on here) Portis’ A New Green Day – another Scallywag triumph – is something different. The design is delightfully tricky, almost a set of simple riddles (“says mud” comes on the page after the gnomic statement from Mud; the picture is a puzzle of eight muddy feet; “says night” on a sky full of stars above muted rooftops after night’s proclamation that it is the black coat slipped around Earth’s shoulders – and the next phrase the engine of the summer dark belongs to the cricket… The reader has to turn from recto to verso to get the sense of the mud, the night, the cricket – or the shadow, tadpole…)
We turn the page for the answer – and as we go through the book, the day turns too. The comma in the long, long sentence of the stream becomes the tadpole.
It feels a bit like the reveal when we go down to see the ponds in the Lye Valley – this is where they should be : yes! And there are the tadpoles, the wrigglers, the punctuation of water in the ponds of the fen, the promise of summer, and hence of another spring. The life that continues its cycle comforts not only because it suggests there will be frogs, but that there will be the other things about spring too: blossom; greening leaves; fledgling robins. We look, in this time of pestilence, for a resumption, maybe even more than a redemption or a resurrection.
I have celebrated the re-opening of bookshops by going down the hill to Blackwells and buying some more: What did the Tree See? tracing the life of an oak from seedling to senescence and into a new generation, and Fox: A Circle of Life Story, which also looks at the life-after-life of a fox’s body and the continuation of the fox in the cubs in the woods…
The dramatic car accident scene in Fox is not the end, and the picture above moves into a sort of symbolism as the family are looking for (and not seeing?) a fox – a new fox – disappear into the woods – we are shown a pretty all-encompassing circle of life. Few punches are pulled on the decomposition of the fox (although if you’ve ever smelled a dead fox you will be glad this book is not a scratch-and-sniff text!) and even the insouciance of the surviving cubs who carry on playing. No anthropomorphism here.
There is a slow drama where the reader is asked to see several things at once in What did the Tree See? We watch the tree grow and grow old, but over its shoulder, if you like, we see a bay colonised by humans over a millennium: trees give way to settlement by humans; transport changes. There is an oblique anthropomorphism here: the tree itself is the first-person narrator, through the whole thousand years. The ending, however, is remarkably similar (if we ignore the plainly non-fiction section at the end): a jay drops an acorn, and we are invited to think “What will it see?” The cycle – we are invited to believe – continues.
So where have I wandered off to in this magic wood? Why is all this about spring? Well, partly because the one thing all these books have is that the magic is earthy, real change and growth walk hand-in-hand with old age and death. Rob Ramsden’s characters face the cycle with the seeds of sunflower and pumpkin; we are invited with Antoinette Portis to turn the pages and thus to turn the day; with Guillain and Usher, with Thomas and Egnéus we may see two different lives, but the short-lived fox and the ancient oak also have a message: the wheel keeps turning. We must hope, and pray and work that it will.
Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.
With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .
Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.
We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.
But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”
…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.
Canticle of the Creatures
The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.
Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space betweenthem, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.
So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.
I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…
The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart
And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.
First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?
Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.
There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?
By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.
The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.
So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?
The very sky no longer high
Comes down within the reach of all.
John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)
So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?
Jim Crumley again:
If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…
An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.
A foot stamps.
You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.
The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus
Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:
She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.
Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us.
Mary Oliver: Snow Geese
I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.
I took with me one of the books I was given as a present: Qing Li’s Into the Forest, (pictured above, left). This is a well-produced and scholarly look at Shinrin-Yoku, Forest Bathing – and this blog post is, in part, a response to the book and the practices it affirms. Qing Li is an epidemiologist in Japan, and the book is at once a toe-in-the-water popular account of the research, and a “how-to” guide to a practice of which Dr Li is a major proponent. Oh yes, in the West it’s a fad perhaps, and, at its lightest, simply a wish-list of mindfulness practices in nice places, but its underlying messages are worth consideration – the kind of thing I clumsily contemplated back in 2018. For example, here (p121) are Qing Li’s proposals for engaging the senses:
Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees
Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches
Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural therapy of phytoncides
Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths
Place your hands on the trunk of the tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground
Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness
And here I was on my birthday with a walking pole – a bare, stout stick – in a sunny, chilly local wood. A raven kronks and kaarks overhead. I sit by a brook and watch a robin. A muntjac comes up to me and then, suddenly spooked, disappears into the bushes and bracken. What did I go out into the wilderness to see?
I didn’t go out to see the beautiful photography that genuinely enriches this book (so much so that I sent it to my rather immobile and certainly locked-down dad). I know Shotover, I know Oxfordshire in winter when blood is nipp’d and ways be foul; this is not the hinoki tree, or the Sagano bamboo forest in the book – or the massive stands of bamboo we met while in Montpellier on holiday. This isn’t a criticism of the book, which has, I know, to have a wider appeal that just to me – but its gorgeous photographs of forests and leaves and sky make me wonder about the woodlands we have access to here in southern England in winter.
Connection to people may well be part of the human condition, and certainly forms part of what I would think of as my own experience of spirituality (I look back at this post and see how it is crammed with names) but on my birthday I spent time alone, not fretting over tasks to be done, or mooning over missed friends or thinking of crass mistakes and mishaps of the past. It was as if my present to myself, or maybe my present from Maggie (who gave me the Into the Forest book) was an opportunity to look over the shoulders of these concerns. I’m aware of the human activity around me, aware of what human activity there has been in the past, but today it’s about hearing the leaves. It’s not even remotely transcendent: it’s just leaves and robins.
As Qing Li puts it,
The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think… In the forest we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.
Into the Forest, p166.
Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is worth citing here, both from the 1989 book The Experience of Nature she and Steven Kaplan wrote, and from other writers looking at their work such as this readable little introduction. I explored it here in a blog post just as my last year at Brookes was coming to a close. To relieve the overburdening experiences of desk bound, urban life, “mental fatigue,” she recommends being engrossed in the environment, purposeful exploration and a real sense of “being away.” It is remarkably similar to the Japanese movement – but again, can we truly escape in suburban Britain? The wood I was in, Brasenose Wood, at the foot of Shotover, has a constant thrum of traffic from the Oxford ring road, and although it is possible to screen it out, doing so is an extra task.
The trees were so grey it made the greens of mosses stand out as if they were lit from within; the sky, when it is blue, is likewise full of light, and on my birthday, it was like Inchbold’s Study in March. As the recent snow melted the trickles were everywhere. At my first stop, I listened under the traffic burr to the water, the robins, a kite high up in the sky. The increased quiet as I went further up and further in (the reference is to C S Lewis) was obvious. The high trees moved and rattled in the wind. On Shotover I am not away in a wilderness miles wide, but making the Edgelands a place where at least some of this escape is possible.
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
Very much as a continuation of the post from the start of December, I wanted to look at woodlands that are not contemplative spaces but may also be places of danger and menace. There is a bear in Brendon Chase, a giant – and weasels, and so on – in the Little Grey Men, but I will leave B.B. for now and look first at perhaps the most famous of menacing woods, Mole’s entry to the Wild Wood:
There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.
Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.
Then the faces began.
It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face, a little, evil, wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.
He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then—yes!—no!—yes! certainly a little, narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated—braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.
If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.
Then the whistling began.
Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he—he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.
Then the pattering began.
He thought it was only falling leaves at first, so slight and delicate was the sound of it. Then as it grew it took a regular rhythm, and he knew it for nothing else but the pat-pat-pat of little feet still a very long way off. Was it in front or behind? It seemed to be first one, and then the other, then both. It grew and it multiplied, till from every quarter as he listened anxiously, leaning this way and that, it seemed to be closing in on him. As he stood still to hearken, a rabbit came running hard towards him through the trees. He waited, expecting it to slacken pace or to swerve from him into a different course. Instead, the animal almost brushed him as it dashed past, his face set and hard, his eyes staring. “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” the Mole heard him mutter as he swung round a stump and disappeared down a friendly burrow.
The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry leaf-carpet spread around him. The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or—somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things, he darted under things and dodged round things. At last he took refuge in the deep, dark hollow of an old beech tree, which offered shelter, concealment—perhaps even safety, but who could tell? Anyhow, he was too tired to run any further, and could only snuggle down into the dry leaves which had drifted into the hollow and hope he was safe for a time. And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fulness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment—that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, ch 3, The Wild Wood
The inexperienced, the unwary learn a lesson here – so much of Wind in the Willows is about self-discovery – and a parallel section – again, early on its story, and with a rescue at the end – occurs in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, where the boy Drem has run away from home, has turned to the wilderness in an attempt to avoid a looming and unpleasant truth:
Only – only it seemed change was coming over the forest.
Or maybe it was that he was awake and aware of the forest now as he had not been before; awake to the darkness and the crowding trees that were suddenly – not quite what trees should be, not quite what they were in the day-time; to the furry that was full of voices, the whispering, rustling, stealthy voices of the forest, that were not the voices of the daytime either. There were little nameless rustlings through the undergrowth, the soft swish of wings through the branches overhead; in the distance a small animal screamed and Drem knew that somewhere a fox had made its kill. Surely the whole forest was disturbed tonight. But those were not the sounds that are raised the hair on the back of his neck. Once he thought he heard the breathing of a big animal close at hand, and as he checked, his own breath caught in his throat; something brushed through the undergrowth towards him, and there was a sudden silver pattering like rain among the leaves – but it was not raining. He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him. He whirled about, his hand on the knife in his belt, but there was nothing there. Nothing but the furry darkness. And far off through the trees, he thought that something laughed. His heart was racing now, sickeningly, right up in his throat; he struggled on again, blindly. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. But even as he blundered on, above the brushing and crackling that he made, above the drubbing of his heart, he heard a soft, stealthy panting as though the Thing prowled at his heels. But it was not only at his heels now, it was all around him, in front as well as behind, and the forest itself, the whole forest was like some great hunting cat crouched to spring. ‘Don’t run!’ said the hunter that was born and bred in him that knew the ways of the wild through hundreds of generations. ‘Don’t run!’ But terror had him in its power, and he was running, with no more sense of direction than a mouse with a stoat behind it.
Brambles tore his skin, fallen branches tripped him, low-hanging boughs slashed across his face as he crashed from the undergrowth that seemed to lay hold of him with wicked, clawing hands. This was the Fear that walked the forest, the Terror of the Soul. He had never felt it before, but the hunter within him knew it; the Fear that prowled soft footed beyond the cave mouth and the firelight.
Rosemary Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet. 2: Talore the Hunter
It is much less consciously poetic than Grahame’s Wild Wood, but picks up the same theme: the crisis of the small creature in a world that is unsafe. For Graham the menace grows in those single and then the …began lines. Each one of them heralds a growing feeling of discomfort, all indistinct to start with. The growing menace is all the more chilling for its being all but intangible.
Rosemary Sutcliff also pulls out all the stops. The second only marks the change, reflected in the ways her writing suggests that all those semi-colons and oddly placed commas are stage directions for reading aloud. Consider, for example the ways they she gives the reader to “perform” this example:
He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him.
Her text is broken up, so that it reads like fragments: He pushed on again – more quickly now – carelessly – stumbling suggesting the boy’s intention scattering as the fear – sorry the Fear – takes hold. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. We have lost the externality of the narrator and fallen into Drem’s own breathless panic.
I wonder if these two tenser images of the terrifying aspects of the Woods are longer because I revel in them and therefore chose the longer sections or because, as Tolkien famously says things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a great deal of telling anyway. The negotium perambulans in tenebris – as the English puts it the pestilence that walketh in darkness – the “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility” as M R James warns the curious – is a fear from before the time of the Psalms.
I mentioned previously the slow burn of violence and sex and mistrust and uncertainty in Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and won’t labour the point: Mythago is not a landscape written with children in mind anyway. The increase of fear in Moominland Midwinter as the wolves approach the little dog Sorry-oo; in Mirkwood, the dark, spider-infested nightmare in The Hobbit, escape is just into another problem; but in Tolkien’s Old Forest in Lord of the Rings, rescue comes – because the binary of narrative asserts itself here (as in Mole’s Wild Wood and Drem’s wilderness) – in the impossible jollity of Tom Bombadil: but each time the hunted finds refuge. It is the turning point of the journey: as Sara Maitland explains
It is when you are going out into the forest, not when you are trying to return home from it, that you get lost, that the forest is at its densest and most frightening.
Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: Staverton Thicks
Peril and escape, peril and rescue in the Forest – could we call it the Woodcutter Imperative, perhaps? – occur elsewhere, too, of course. We sometimes find a solution in the woods, despite the fear: Drem will, Mole will, Frodo and Bilbo will, although in a switchback of perilous events – and of course Merry and Pippin will too, in the curious encounters with the Ents.
The Wart , the future King Arthur of T H White’s tragedy The Once and Future King, pursues the hawk into the Forest Sauvage, and White draws on the same themes, but at this point is knowingly engaging the reader (‘nowadays”), and by doing so lessens the panic:
Wart would not have been frightened of an English forest nowadays, but the great jungle of Old England was a different matter. It was not only that there were wild boars in it, whose sounders would at this season be furiously rooting about, nor that one of the surviving wolves might be slinking behind any tree, with pale eyes and slavering chops. The mad and wicked animals were not the only inhabitants of the crowded gloom. When men themselves became wicked they took refuge there, outlaws cunning and bloody as the gore-crow, and as persecuted. …
There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws…who lived together and wore green and shot with arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.
Added to this, there was the fact that it was getting dark. The forest was trackless and nobody in the village knew what was on the other side. The evening hush had fallen, and the high trees stood looking at the Wart without a sound.
T H White, The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone Ch II
The woods, therefore, are not always the joyous and therapeutic place we might imagine, but part of the inimical outdoors, a place of magical, dangerous encounter, the space for menace and danger that will resolve itself or become a meeting with someone or something that will rescue or transform the person who has ventured in (Badger for Mole; Talore for Drem; Merlyn for the Wart; Fangorn for Merry and Pippin – and is it too fanciful to suggest Mellors for Lady Chatterley?). Not comfortable places – but places for an important meeting to take place.
Here is an Old Man Willow up the Windrush valley, on a winter afternoon – possibly not really that old, given willows’ life spans – but a bit of pareidolia suggests a face – and I think of the trees of the Old Forest, the Winter King and thus of course to The Green Knight and to the Christmas that is coming.
Which brings me to a tree end with: my admission that the first tree in the greenwood that I found truly terrifying still has the power the raise the hairs on my arms, and is, of course; not Tolkien’s willow, but
a tree where no tree should be – a tree shaped roughly like a stooping man, that waved its long arms before it and clutched at the air with its long fingers.