Lovely

Further thoughts on Enid Blyton and Alan Garner

Having written about Blyton this month I started Peter Fiennes’ excellent book Footnotes, the opening chapter of which takes us to Dorset with its pleasant pastures and the clouded hills, and I feel I need to have a rethink. His staunch defence – amid a no-holds-barred exploration of her life – makes me at least want to add on some of his ideas about the ways in which Blyton writes. Although he is aware of her shortcomings, Fiennes likes Blyton, and puts her in context: immensely popular, a great manager of her own “brand,” with a love of nature and adventure that meant she was influential and lasting. With the prejudices of her time (a polite circumlocution for her attitudes to race and class), ambiguously portrayed or even attacked by her children, she nevertheless conjured her stories and teased at our childish longings. I have tried, since reading this chapter in Footnotes, to like her. I still can’t – but I can understand something more of her.

I chose the title for this blog because Fiennes gleefully points out how Blyton uses the adjective so much in what he calls her lumpen prose. However, rather then simply criticising her, he has this brilliant insight:

The simple fact is that Enid writes in archetypes; another word would be cliches. She had no interest in writing with the evocative precision about specific places. It is certainly hard to pin them down in her writings… Enid preferred to write her books and live her life on the surface. And to keep things vague. But even if it is hard to locate specific places, here in the Isle of Purbeck, the truth is that everything inside an Enid Blyton book is instantly recognizable. She takes the world and makes it less confusing, kneading her ingredients into something manageable, safe, tidy and above all familiar.

Peter Fiennes Footnotes, Ch 1.

This is, of course why comparison with Garner doesn’t work. His interest is all to do with evocative precision about specific places; that’s what Garner does. In Arboreal, for example, his essay on the Alder Bog (note: the boggy woodland will re-emerge in Treacle Walker), is much more than a history: it is biography, autoethnography, where ‘he,’ the protagonist, has renewed the tamed wild. Garner has cleared the mess of derelict woodland, and from it has brought a poetic insight reminiscent of Hopkins, an historical sense of place like that of Kipling’s Tree Song, but earthier, deeper, more powerful. There is a love of the land and the language here that is worth more than repeating: it is worth celebrating:

Archaeologists came and trowelled one of the Bronze Age barrows near the house. With burnt bone they found the turves that built the burial mound and in them the pollen of the plants that lived then: willow, hazel, ivy, ash; alder, lime, elm, pine and oak; moss, fern, bracken, heather, sedge, and gorse; meadowsweet, vetch, daisy, buttercup; spelt, grass, corn spurrey, wheat; dandelion, chickweed and fat hen. Four thousand years ago the wild was cleared and gone. All was fields, farms, crops, cattle, order; rule: an open world.

The dead men in the ground had worked the same land.

Garner: The Common Dean: The Edge.

I could want to sing that litany of plants.

Nearer the Sky

The Ridings, Headington

I was thinking and writing on St George’s Day of the hymn/school assembly song “When a Knight Won his Spurs,” and the moral ogres and dragons it prompts us to battle. Another of this genre is “Glad that I Live am I,” which M sang to me as we walked Jeff the Dog this morning. This site gives various versions, none matching the comforting wham-bam-plunk of a school assembly. Nostalgia and spirituality is a different blog post, but some of these versions really don’t work for me, and none of them take me back to Blandford Infants.

These are the words.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes
And the fall of dew

After the sun the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

Do I mean “genre”? Perhaps for me they stick together just as the choices my teachers in State education made: vaguely religious lyrics urging a sort of morality in which we draw our understanding from the country lanes. No, it doesn’t make them bad lyrics. Yes, we sang “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” and stuff too, but these stick in my head because of the odd mixture of woolly romantic nature appreciation and aspiration: Ladybird British Wild Flowers and an optimism I now see the twentieth century never really lived up to. They were all certainly different from Sundays, where as Roman Catholics we were still immersed in a vision of the Mass that Heaney (so to speak) celebrates. My dad can still sing a wonderful marching-band version of the music for the Easter rite of sprinkling Holy Water; I can still manage a lot of Compline with its Salva nos Domine vigilantes. This is a good source. And maybe this explains why knights winning their spurs and country lanes seemed something of an oddity to me. If Glad That I Live Am I was odd then, I think of it as more mainstream now: being outdoors is about wellbeing; the locus amoenus (a quick link here) being the locus salubris. Enough marking; enough screen time all round: when I post this blog I’m off for a run in the jolly springtime.

Perhaps the oddness resides in the nature of children’s spirituality. Perhaps closer to what I see in this mixture of ideals and imagery is Tony Eaude’s idea that spirituality is elusive, contested, as I explored some time back, something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment. This would admit Lizette Reese’s final idea of growing nearer the sky, so that it becomes a metaphor rather than a child’s wish to grown nearer to heaven. I originally thought it was about growing taller. It may have that physical element, but there is more than that. As I’ve said before

It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom

all that desire for growing nearer the sky.

Eyes as Clean as the Cold Sky

A first trip to Otmoor

The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are

…sunken in our adoration,

And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy

That swims with undefinable fire.

And we will never see the copper sunset

Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…

Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather

For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.

The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.

And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.

Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.

The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.

So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?

Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:

But mostly I stand in the dark field,

in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name

but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.

I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass

and the weeds.

Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing

I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.

Endosperm and Scandicus

…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 from 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.

Waking Early

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

this country

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

lavishly,

every morning,

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.

Roger Deakin’s “Notes from Walnut Tree Farm:” May

Greening the Jolly Springtime

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

Pay attention.

Be astonished

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…)

A New Green Day, Antoinette Portis

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 Valleythis 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.

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.

Worms

It might be that at some point I write about worms as mythic beasts, maybe dragons, or the pull of the Lambton legend, or its folkloric influences, or (as I have before) about Mayne’s retelling. This is not that post; this is a brief reflection on worms on my allotment.

Thanks to a colleague of Maggie’s we have some generous piles of muck ripening on the plot. Turn but a spade and start a wriggling congregation of worms, working away in the wet bins this poo is in, and from time to time I move some manure (and worms) into the compost bins or to round the rhubarb or the fruit trees, or wherever. It feels good to help the soil and the plants along, and the worms do their bit, eating their decaying organic surrounding (and by the way, this isn’t an advice piece on wormeries: check out the RHS or someone) and helping turn rather odd claggy and sandy soil into the stuff that gives us pumpkins and potatoes,

And there I have it: helping. I have phrased this in such a way as to making these co-habitants appear to be working with us to produce something for our consumption – yet really I am using the same material they are, and profiting from their industry.

This isn’t a plea for a kind of extreme pro-animal gardening in which I avoid using any animals’ processes to better my plot, my enjoyment, my diet. I am aware, with the poet Anne Stevenson that lost to the angels, it appears/We share with rats and fleas a murky source. Acknowledging this, I find worms fascinating in what they do and how they live (look at this for guidance in schools, again from RHS, or this, from the Earthworm Society of Britain) yet as I dug, and spread, and mixed I did wonder: if it freezes tonight will I have harmed the worms? That writhing pink mass that got distributed to the new rhubarb and the goosegogs: was it some wormy gathering I broke up, a striving for mating, even in some sort a family? And the robin on the plot, and the corvids in the trees – will they profit from my digging at the expense of these worms? At home the chickens will slurp up a worm they find like a child attacks spaghetti.

So I dig and spread. The robin keeps an eye on what it can have when I am gone. The blackbird too is carefully noting what I am up to. The jackdaws (and even the raven, I think) patrol the allotments for what they might have. The worms are our – what? Helpers? Coworkers? Victims?

And if I think that at least my warming compost and sticky middens are a nice place for these creatures, what does that mean? I am not farming them, keeping them there to break up my manure (well, not my manure, but you know what I mean, I hope); they simply arrive in a way that makes me see the plausibility of spontaneous generation, and I am profiting from it, using their consumption to make better compost, to enrich my soil, feed me. Me, me me, mine, mine mine. Maybe it is this framing that shows how lost to the angels I am.

Our plaited genes mean nothing to the spheres;

contingency, not prayer, will plot your course.

Anne Stevenson, To Phoebe (at five months)

I can’t leave it there. Even in a wormy pile of farmyard clearings, there is much more than this. A history of hunter gatherers bettering themselves, of birds pecking and cows shitting: as Hopkins sees it, a rich pattern of everything that is swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. Anne Stevenson, too, is aware of the to-and-fro of divinity and the secular (in part what Andrew Wright, in moving towards a definition of spirituality calls the mind-matter dualism that shapes our struggle for meaning) and brings it out wonderfully:

The sea is dark

by virtue of its white lips;

the gannets, white,

by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt

with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,

though it does not appear so

to you in the speared fish.

Anne Stevenson: Gannets Diving

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.