Water

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.

An Earlier Life

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 between them, 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.

Ibid

Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.

I

held my breath

as we do

sometimes

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.

When blood is nipp’d

Shotover, and a birthday walk.

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.

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

The Fear that walked the forest

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.

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.

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive, tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

Sacra Iuventus

Alcuin has to join those writers I have discussed before – Walafrid Strabo, Paulinus, Ausonius – as worthy of particular mention at this time, and I just want to explore briefly some of the phrases in the poem called Cella Alcuini, in the little collection that came to me recently. I’ve found the Latin text and a translation here, but not before I stumbled through it with (as the first photo shows) a fat Latin dictionary.

The poem starts as a kind of monastic eclogue: Alcuin rejoices in his “cella,” his enclosure, where the apples are ripe, the lilies and little roses bloom. Everything in the garden really is lovely.

But the tone changes. The transitory nature of this comfortable life is underlined; poetry is gone, the boys are no longer singing. It is different from Horace (another Flaccus: Alcuin is not unaware of his predecessor) in that the Horatian ode Eheu fugaces seems to me to be about approaching Death, whereas Alcuin, leaning on his staff sees his youth departing but another vocation pressing (Ian Chadwick, by the way, has a good exposition of Horace here; perhaps a drier blog, but with the full text and translation is to be found here from John Derbyshire). His youth departing: an unintentional double meaning here? I think it is not unreasonable to see Cella as mourning not so much the arrival of wrinkles as the departure of a way of life or a a much loved younger companion. The tone changes – and I am unsure about whether the awkwardness of this is purposeful or not. When seems clear to me in that second half is that the post-Horatian praise of Alcuin’s dwelling – not a “cell” as commonly understood, but a compound, a settlement – is interrupted by the more passionate writing.

Two images stand out for me:

Quae campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus

Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior

And

Nos miseri cur te fugitivum mundus amamus

Alcuin is missing the mundus, the physicality of his garden, of the sacra iuventus out in the fields, even of his religious life – ces voix d’enfants chantants dans la coupole from Verlaine and Eliot. There are other points of reference, but I’m reminded of the “sacred days” of Ray Davis and Kirsty McColl, and Days (another link for me might be Sainte-Colombe’s Tombeau Les Regrets, but this isn’t the place to explore all these thems in every genre): Alcuin’s regrets are a spur to something else…

I am struck by the image of an old man and his stick (an abbatial staff?) looking back at the lads chasing deer: it is so vivid I cannot help but think it is “drawn from the life” in some way: Alcuin’s memory of his own youth or an experience with his students. How, then, do I want to translate that phrase sacra iuventus? What is sacra? My initial thought was to see this use of “sacred” as akin to the idea of the precious freedom of childhood, an early exploring of the ideas that emerge in the Romantic and post-Romantic period in poets and educationalists alike.

Maybe that innocence and excitement is there in germ, but I think I want to explore briefly is how sacer is used where Alcuin would have seen it most: the liturgical texts, where a sacrifice makes something sacred. Is that what Alcuin is suggesting? The boy chasing the deer is one consecrated to God? A youthful cleric? Or does iuventus stand for a gang of lads from the school in York? That would work: the holy youth (singular or plural) chase[s] the deer, the older man leans on his staff – tired: a suggestion that the dedication of the young has past. Ah, except that the rest of the poem suggests that it is in old age we turn to something more demanding, more transcendent: that play between cur…fugitivum…amamus and Christum nos semper amemus then becomes key: why do we love you, fleeting world? Fly, fly: let us always love Christ… A pious thought.

And yet I come back to “those endless days, those sacred days.” Is the old Alcuin leaning on his staff and looking at the energy of a long-gone youth and seeing it as having its own unattainable glory? Can he discern with Larkin and Marvell and Yeats and the rest that what he partakes of is only their scrap of history? Does his wistfulness suggest he protests too much when he needs to repurpose his love (amor and amemus dominate these last lines of the poem)? Or is he suggesting in his own way that

What will survive of us is love

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

A Familiar Outdoors

Tulip, from Benjamin and Tulip

Sorry: this is a long post written over quite a few days. I hope it still holds together. We’ll start with a very odd but charming landscape drawing from Rosemary Wells. Detail is reduced and reduced: character becomes a threatening little tail from a barebones sketch of a tree. We will come to know this tree, and the owner of the tail, as the eponymous Benjamin and Tulip‘s relationship develops, but for now it is a tree: it is a stage set for a conflict, nothing more.

When Peter Feinnes raises the question if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? (I cited him here but felt as I wrote that piece there was more to say) I wondered – right back to my first thinkings of a research project that didn’t make it to PhD – about depicting familiar landscapes. Here are two to explore: on the left a building identified as “Playschool” in Sarah Garland‘s 1990 book “Going to Playschool” and on the right, a wood in “The Wild Woods” by Simon James.

“Playschool” is different from the woods for me in that the building and its environs are South and West Oxford: the tower behind the school building is the Seacourt Tower in Botley, whereas the woods are everywhere-woods, at least everywhere in England. Does the fact that I recognise how Sarah Garland uses places I recognise alter my reading of the book? Yes it does, and although I can see how she has used locations imaginatively here and in her books about Polly to tell a good story (shortening roads, reworking shop locations) the connection with Oxford that our family felt reading her books when we had left for Durham was an important part of our decision to come back. That map of South Oxford in Henry and Fowler had a real effect in that it was instrumental in our deciding to move back. But this is only (only?) personal: does this pull of recognition have to be there?

I suggest it doesn’t need to be exact; otherwise Polly’s Puffin and the rest would have a limited audience, and Simon James’ grandad would be doomed to walk the woods unnoticed. What they need is a location that can be recognised enough for the reader to sympathise: for example the “playgroup” (I keep the inverted commas because the actual school is a fully-fledged, free-standing Nursery School) just needs to look like somewher readers (adult and child) can sense some familiarity with – as the Head Teacher of that very Nursery once said of a good Early Years setting “lots of interesting things to do and lots of people to do them with.” Woods, likewise, when not places of fantasy and peril, are a mixture of trees and streams and wildlife, and I have written lots on these: they are a unit of understanding in exploring nature in UK, changing from environment to environment, set up, fought for, mourned, looked after, neglected…. but woods are recognisable, a meme, to use Dawkins’ idea, a topos if we follow Jane Carroll’s framework (worked out via Cooper, Garner et al in her book and discussed in part by me here, but see her staff page for an extensive list of writings) – and in Simon James’ everywood, where grandad and granddaughter explore, get wet, meet a squirrel in a place that, if not every child’s common experience, are at least, well, part of their cultural landscape. That itself begs all sorts of questions about cultural capital and landscape, into which this is a first tentative step.

The universal wood of Simon James – and the tree that starts off this blog post, the hiding place of Rosemary Wells‘ disruptive raccoon Tulip – are places the reader can see and say “Yes, I know that place.” Not so, when an illustration seeks to depict a landscape that may be unfamiliar to the reader, and this is worth a brief digression. The lovely Handa from Eileen Browne’s Kenya is at the heart of a number of stories, and still well appreciated, still “going strong,” but not without difficulties: especially where that familiar is a false familiarity, we are in real danger of stereotypes.

There is a tricky line for authors and illustrators – and their readers – to tread in making the places in stories stand for universals. Handa cannot stand for every African – I think the link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the danger of a single story is pertinent here. Just in the same way as she found she did not need to see rural Nigerians as without creativity, to see them as simply “poor,” Browne has a difficult task here in showing a girl in rural Kenya as resourceful, generous, but choosing a very traditional rural setting – it was my own third visit to Africa that showed me round houses like these (at any rate, ones that were not built for tourists). “We all know” too readily what Africa is like: it is Kenya, and in Kenya it is a rural Kenya. In setting a story in a place the reader will recognise, the danger is that familiar is also uncontested and over-generalised.

To move for a moment to “adult lit,” this is what makes a book like Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest an intersting read (and I really should stress it is for adults). When she retells Red Riding Hood she begins

Once upon a time there was a man who lived all alone in the forest

and we are intrigued. “That’s not how it starts,” we might think, but we press on, up a rough track until we come (actually in the next sentences) to

He worked in the forest, tree felling, track filling, ditch digging, and deer killing. Power saw and rifle.

Sara Maitland, November: Kielder Forest , Gossip from the Forest Ch 9

In other words, this is the Story of the Woodcutter set in Maitland’s Kielder Forest section, and a bleak retelling it is. However what it does – what the book attempts – it to wake the sleeping wood into being a repository for stories, in particular women’s stories. Now this is an adult example without illustrations, but we might look at other books and ask What is the author/illustrator trying to wake in us about landscape? It might be that the very traditional setting of Janet and Allan Ahlberg is itself a parody trying to provoke – to wake up a sense of fun (Jeremiah in the Dark Woods does precisely that, I think, and the question I have raised before is the kind of challenge it brings: Do they all live in the same wood?). And if it wakes a sense of fun, it might also provoke a question: Does it have to be like that? Or a set of questions: Does Goldilocks need to find that kind of cottage, does Sleeping Beauty have to be blonde, does Red Riding Hood need a woodcutter? The stuff of the classroom discussion, and the problem of “using” children’s literature (see this from a couple of years ago).

We are into the difficult challenge posed by Jacqueline Rose:

Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence and skills.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.

Is she at loggerheads with Phillip Pullman when he states

But fiction doesn’t merely enteratin – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together…

Phillip Pullman: Balloon Debate “Why Fiction is Valuable” in Daemon Voices

or am I trying to set them in opposition? I understand what Rose is saying about the confining of literature to the pedagogic practices of the classroom and I take her point about the danger of differing modes of representation between play and a “canon” of children’s literature, I am unsure about the dichotomy she stresses where “rhythm and play” and “narrative fiction” are worlds apart. Indeed, I think play and storytelling have a lot in common even when we are not specifically looking at or engaged in the kind of role-play or dramatic play that might begin “I’ll be the dragon and you be the swamp monster.” [Yes that reference is intentional: read the article {abstract here} if only because it is the best title for an academic article ever!] One of the things they have in common is what Pullman describes above: the intimate relationship between humanity and action. But a step behind that is another commonality: the slipperiness of their language, and how in writing about play and story we are very quickly drawn to using imagery and metaphor.

Here, for example, is Pullman (in my opinion) at his bardic finest:

…Most of all, stories give delight….They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral…In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper – and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to because if you did, you’d only turn around to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came…another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

So I return to a word I explored recently: delight and to Bruner’s notion that deep play is playing with fire. Defining a pedagogy of play is this kind of dangerous activity. Are we talking here about how adults can justify something they feel is uncomfortably out of their control? Or moving fun activities up a few notches in status so that there is an entertainment aspect to the input adults make?

Sue Rogers puts it well – so well that I would suggest you, dear Reader, look at her whole chapter Powerful Pedagogies and Playful Resistance in Brooker and Edwards’ Engaging Play, of which the following is a quick highlight:

Two distinct positions are suggested…: first that play is viewed as the undisciplined activity of young children. Thus schools and other early childhood institutions are designed to control and sanitise play so that it reflects adult views of what is good play/bad play. Second, that play is viewed as less important than other activities in classrooms because of the way it is positioned at the margins of what counts as real and necessary activity…

Set against this, opportunities for social pretend play offered children the possibilities to explore identities within their relationships with others and in the process of navigating the dominant pedagogical practices of their classrooms. These identities are not fixed but rather shift with particular play events and social groupings.

Sue Rogers in Engaging Play

Let’s get back outside. Story – and its pull of delight, much the same as play – offer those possibilities to explore identities. That is not to say that they have to be Bibles moralisées, or the instructional tales of early books aimed at children, or even stories with what Jacqueline Rose calls the invisible adult directing the moral purpose, but that there is, in the pull of delight, a need for the familiar reference point as a jumping off into a different world, a different set of speculations. Is Tulip up her tree? Any old tree? What might a tree stand for (I am restraining myslef from more than a link to poor old Vladimir and Estragon and their tree but I found this enlightening) – a useful resource in a forest or a menace from a family history in an ornamental garden? What is life like for the woodcutter – Sara Maitland’s or another storyteller’s? What is life like for Mrs Oldknow when Tolly is gone? The questions – sorry if this sounds fanciful – branch out all over the place, and we have no immediately clear idea, no schema to attach them to. As I have mentioned before, Bettelheim asks What is the kingdom which many fairy tale heroes gain at the story’s end? The ambiguity of this kingdom requires an imaginative leap. In the stories I started with – the anarchic Tulip, the distraught Polly, the girl and her grandfather in the woods – there is always a possibility for this leap beyond the story, but perhaps it is strengthened by the elements of familiarity in a story’s setting: it is like the stepping stone from which the reader can launch themselves into the unfamiliar. For any of us who approach children’s literature with a critical eye, some element of topoanalysis is a vital, enlivening and enriching experience – whether we are booksellers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers, outdoor instructors: yes, and even grandads who take a walk in the woods with the children.

Sort of footnote: Simon James records that His ideal day out is trekking with The Adventurers (four children he knows and who feature in his book Days Like This) wading through streams – with rucksacks full of chocolate. Sarah Garland, until her change of style and pace with Azzi in Between, wrote and drew in locations largely reflecting her experiences in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.

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.