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.

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.

Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”

Dipping for Meanings

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

Dipper

Once I saw

in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,

among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,

a small bird, and knew it

from the pages of a book; it was

the dipper, and dipping he was,

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

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

there being no words to transcribe, I had to

bend forward, as it were,

into his frame of mind, catching

everything I could in the tone,

cadence, sweetness, and briskness

of his affirmative report.

Though not by words, it was

more than satisfactory way to the

bridge of understanding.  This happened

in Colorado

more than half a century ago –

more certainly, than half my lifetime ago –

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

in the leaves besides the stream,

his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh

comfortable even so.

And still I hear him –  

and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles

he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,

his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love –

and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,

and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember

your name, great river,

but since that hour I have lived

simply,

in the joy of the body as full and clear

as falling water; the pleasures of the mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

or full of argument.

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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

Next year in…

The wish for restoration in the Passover Seder “Next year in Jerusalem” was poignant this year. Where will we be when the words are next used at the end of September? There is a great desire for a new dawn, a new day, but looking at the political landscape I can see bigotry and mauvaise foi, and I cannot see the wide spread of justice like an everflowing stream that so many of us desire. Utopias are precisely that: places that are ou-topoi, no-places. The British Library, in its excellent trail through the literature, explores a possible play on words between eutopia, a good place, and utopia, asking “Can a perfect world ever be realised?”

If, as Kathleen Jamie suggests of St Kilda, “their way of life broke on the wheel of the modern world,” it may be that this also signals how little validity there is in the harking-back of current political rhetoric. The eutopias of the past are Ealing Studio films (Comedies?) only: ou-topias. However, it’s possible to find personal places in a “when and where were you happiest?” sort of way. In Looking in the Distance, Richard Holloway is at his most plangent as he describes his “fierce and sorrowful anger” on a return to his old theological college: We know that nothing lasts yet the sudden awareness of our own finitude can surprise us into grief… But not always grief: they can be places of beauty and joy. The woods in Spring and Autumn above Nettlebed with Maggie might be such a place for me. Iconic for me (as anyone who has read back in my posts) is the visit just before we were were asked to stay home when Mat Tobin and I went to Uffington, the memory of which has sustained me when I have felt miserable during lockdown. Aberlady, Gradbach, Wychwood, Nettlebed… all sorts of places can do this, and can be the cloud of witnesses that surround us on a grey day or in a time of confinement. Here is a collage of photos of such places – places that are some of my eutopoi:

I notice how selective I am when choosing these photos: the hill of Ludchurch, Aberlady Bay, Uffington, the Lye Valley: outdoors places rather than, say, the churches of Rosslyn, Cordoba or Durham, or the Bodleian, or Magdalen.

These eutopoi suggest something about where I feel wholeness. However, I look at these airy, quiet places and see they are not the places I am regularly: the kitchen; the allotment; my preferred social media platforms… They are outdoors, rural or semirural heterotopias, where difference is key. I am often accompanied by people dear to me: I experience both the Kaplan’s notion of escape and a social aspect that I think is connected – for me – to their idea of fascination (the link here takes you to one of my explorations of their work). These good places might be a delight of solitude, but often for me have a human presence, a human perspective to them – but it is easy (maybe – under normal circumstances, at least), to pick a friend and go somewhere like this. The “human aspect” of fascination is about a compatible voice, a hand to hold.

So when I look to wholeness, wellness, I have to ask what the human aspect actually is. It’s a tough question when dealing with mental health, not just because, thrown on our own resources I come back time and again to my own mental health, but to a bigger question about “When This Is All Over:” what will wellbeing be like? I hope it will include pubs, hugs, time together, as well as all the bigger societal things, but thinking personally (and irrespective of the broader political machinations particularly) here I am struck by a suggestion from Jon Reid on Twitter today that has brought me right back to the present, a brilliantly simple humanistic examen that asks us to identify:

  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for myself and
  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for others

It is really tempting to see September (or January or 2022 or even the next scheduled General Election) as a time when everyone will vote for a humanity-based society where peace and justice take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, where society is a seen as a whole entity, full of interconnections and mutual dependencies, where truth is embedded in politics more than vote-grabbing, where care workers are paid properly… and yet I don’t believe it will come. So let’s take the “next year” wish and (to nick an idea wholesale from William Blake – but he is not alone in wishing it) build our own places of wellbeing and belonging, around three daily occurrences of self care and three of care for others. It will be up to us to kindle that hope into something bigger.

It is a start at least. Each pool of light might connect with others.

Escape, extent and serendipity

There was a time long ago – say, last Sunday afternoon – when nipping off for a run seemed easy and natural. And on Monday, when Jeff and I went for a walk – well, it seemed a normal thing. Bloke. Dog. Biscuits. Sunshine. The political clouds of isolation and the warning that people had to be more responsible were looming, but dogs gotta walk, and man’s gotta be sensible about “social isolation.” That seemed about it.

Jeff the dog and I went to South Park and Warneford Meadow. We got muddy, he more than I, we looked at the various corvids and the people playing basketball, he ate dog biscuits and I didn’t, and we were sensible about keeping ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t do the reckless “last weekend before we have to be indoors” congregating, but yes, it seemed that keeping to guidelines was easy. A new politeness was emerging around how far apart we needed to be from people we passed, it’s true, but in any case they weren’t people either of us knew, not even nodding acquaintances. A quick chat with the basketballers a good 4m away and then we moved on. We got closer to magpies, to be honest. Three for a girl, if I remember rightly.

Only with yesterday evening’s pronouncements did that mood really change, and I think in retrospect we pushed it a bit. Maybe it was my day’s exercise. It will have to stand as such.

Wind back a week and I am with Mat high on the Downs, and you could not wish for a lovelier day. Sunny again, breezy, a sharp-eyed, sharp-minded kestrel of a good friend, everything bright and fair. As I discussed here, human relation to place is, for Robert Mcfarlane, grounded in language; but language is itself grounded in relationship. I’m coming back to this.

Back to the Friday before and Lizzie, Maggie and I walk through the Aberlady nature reserve and across the beach to Gullane. A bright sun, a brisk wind. Family enjoying one another’s company.

But these are not excuses to show snapshots. What is it that gave these trips significance? Why feel better after them? They both lacked the challenge of Rob Macfarlane’s exploration of the treacherous Broomway or even the experience of our face-to-face encounter at Ludchurch. What is it that some trips into the outdoors bring? and how do we represent that in time and place without it being, like these photos, just a grown-up version of What I did on My Holidays?

The absolutely seminal book on the psychology of the outdoors for me is the 1989 book The Experience of Nature, by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. In it, they explore dimensions that may provide a framework for how “nature” helps and supports psychological wellbeing. Extent; fascination; action and compatibility. Because their work looks to the “wilderness” they address the nation of escape as well, which they view with some caution because it has in it “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present and presumably not always preferred.” I can see their point, but given that it is early work (thirty years ago) and has been superseded in many ways (partly by the new nature writing itself), I want to raise the question of escape with someone. Here, further off on the Aberlady sand dune, is Maggie; Mat not only drove the two of us to Uffington, his insights enriched our visit. We are “political animals” – not because we are forever tuned into the depressing power games (or, if you like, selfless and inspirational leadership) that cram our news until we cannot see what’s actually happening – but because we are defined by how we live in the company of others. I go out on my own but with me come meetings to have, people I want to see (or don’t), ideas to bounce off others. I bring the city with me. And similarly I contend that a visit to Uffington means I am “with” (metaphorically) Rosemary Sutcliff, or that to go to Ludchurch “with” Alan Garner is not to travel alone. In some ways, the accompanying author or characters provide what the Kaplans call action and compatibility, and of course are the spur to action via the notion of fascination. We go “Backpacking with the Saints” according to Belden Lane (article here; link to the [excellent] book is here. Name the saints that come with you.

Lane, a “scholar in recovery” takes with him insights from the Desert Monastics and “a few lines of Rumi” and is wedded to the silence that wilderness can bring. Not as far into my recovery I have taken Gawain, most recently Sun Horse Moon Horse and the Land of the White Horse. Somewhere in my mental backpack are lines and vistas from writers such as Robert Macfarlane, C S Lewis, Oliver Rackham…. This isn’t a boast: I sometimes wonder whether I could leave them in the car. Would this then be more of an escape, or given the liberating nature of some of this writing, less of one? And what about extent? Do we need the wide open wilderness of the Ozarks are we OK with the view from the White Horse down into the farmlands of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire? I think of Aberlady, where I have no literary baggage to bring: an escape, as the Kaplans would see it from particular content, “a rest from pursuing certain purposes.” I wonder if writing about his wilderness hikes took the edge off the experience from Beldin Lane…

But for the trips that fall under the Wild Spaces Wild Magic umbrella I really have to take the authors firmly in my hand and my mind: last week for example I was reading the episode of Lubrin Dhu’s planning of the White Horse from Rosemary Sutcliff and looking for where she might have sited the Wych Elm. She comes with me and by extension the characters she calls into being; David Miles comes with me – my copy of his book has a smudge of Uffington soil on the page of his site plan (p101, if you’re interested); Mat of course comes with me. Identifying where this Wych Elm might have been, we find some wild apple trees by chance and wonder: are these the inspiration for the sacred apple trees in Sun Horse Moon Horse?

Social aspects of serendipity (see for example Morrissey’s “An autoethnographic inquiry into the role of serendipity in becoming a teacher educator/researcher,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2014) seem to me to work alongside the changeability of being outside. Less is in the enquirers’ control, expectations have to change. Two pairs of eyes are able (sometimes) to be more alert to these changes: sagacity (Morrissey again) enhances serendipity but are two heads better than one? If we are aware of the dangers of shoring up each other’s ideas, might collaboration, like identifying mistakes (Morrissey) “also uncover for the researcher… fears, preconceptions or beliefs …of which he/she had hitherto been unaware”?

And if we are accompanied by the cloud of witnesses from literature – such as nature writers and their places, fiction writers and their characters – then we might address two notions (or one single notion with two aspects? I’m not sure as I write) of psychogeography and autoethnography. How much, in other words, does setting (in its broadest sense) and personal history of setting enhance or detract from personal reading of landscape? I am conscious of the dilemmas where Dyson writes “In recognising that I was a subject and an object of the research I realised that at the same time I was and could be both an insider and an outsider within the culture that I was investigating.” (From his article My Story in a Profession of Stories: Auto Ethnography – an Empowering Methodology for Educators, https://ro.ecu.edu.au/ajte/ 2007). I rejoice in being on the Downs with Mat; I am very glad we have purpose in a book I love; I am exhilarated in the chill breeze and bright sun. To change from his journey metaphor to one of wind or water, being the reader and a colleague in an investigating team involves recognising how all sorts of things flow over one another: the reader and her/his history; the researcher and her/his concerns and limitations; the authors under investigation, their sources, their motives, their depiction of place and character; and being a research partner multiplies these complexities. For me this links with Rob Macfarlane’s lines from his introduction to The Living Mountain:

…the world itself is therefore not the unchanging object…but instead endlessly relational. It is made manifest only by only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions… We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits…

We are human, language-loving and people-loving; we are also placed: physically located on a windy ridge above a deserted farmhouse in the Peak district, or searching for a tree that may never have been at the foot of the Downs.

To conclude with Belden Lane, who may be close to an answer here (I know I’m not): The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. I think he also could have said, Tell me the place to which you are drawn, and I’ll tell you who you are becoming. 

Frogs are Nothing Fancy

Except in some ways they are. They were today, down in the Lye Valley. In among the “warm thick slobber/of frogspawn that grew like clotted water” as Seamus Heaney puts it, were maybe a hundred frogs. Alerted by a notice from social media, I took Ivy, keen and energetic to see the frogs spawning in the fenny ponds near our house.

They weren’t Heaney’s “slime kings,” “their blunt heads farting,” but a congregation of animals, a welcome sign of spring on a warm afternoon. Not coarse, and not apocalyptic, just frogs: welcome, exuberantly sexual and productive. One watched us carefully as she sat in her grey cloud of eggs, her sides heaving; others climbed, swam, grabbed, and croaked like a distant motorbike starting up.

My immediate thought is that Bashō has it right: keep to the bare thing itself (a nice explanation of Bashō’s famous frog haiku and some translations are to be found here; more, with Zen comments, here) in a few terse lines: eschew the grandiose. Today at Mass, the preacher interrupted his own flow to correct his phrasing around a (very good) point of his sermon on Christology and spirituality and say “O dear, what pretentious twaddle!” – and perhaps Bashō does better with his short invitation to join him by the pond.

Continue reading “Frogs are Nothing Fancy”

Sword-grey sky, daffodil light

To do no more this morning than record this astonishing section from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord. The protagonist, newly made king of the peoples of what we might describe as Western Scotland, Red Phaedrus, img_2217
is out to catch the woman appointed as his wife. These are horse-people, as the book’s title suggests, and this rough “courtship” (here as in the Lantern Bearers Sutcliff does not shy away from the nature of marriage and being given in marriage and its impact on woman) is the bridgegroom’s chase after his bride. They are both mounted, and she has a head start as the groom’s party pursue her through the country of the Dál Riata.  Just look at this amazing use of colour and shade, and how Sutcliff anchors this in the landscape features – the whirlpool of the Old Woman, the mountain of Cruachan she has already introduced us to in map and in narrative.

The track was pulling up now, out of the great flats of Mhoin Mhor, and the quarry, striking away from it, was making north-eastward for the hills around Loch Abha head. And the wild hunt swept after her, hooves drumming through the blackened heather, skirting little tarns that reflected the sword-grey sky, startling the green plover from the pasture clearings. Far over to the west the clouds were breaking as they came up into the hills, and a bar of sodden daffodil light was broadening beyond the Island, casting an oily gleam over the wicked swirling water of the Old Woman, while away and northward, the high snows of Cruachan caught the westering beams and shone out sour-white against the storm-clouds dark behind.

Gifts Reserved for Age?

A storm was gathering yesterday that has hit us good and proper today. I had been for a walk and a coffee and came out from the pub to see the lights on in St Andrews across the way. Evening Prayer time in a warm, quiet, dark church.

And when I got home I looked up the words from T S Eliot because, I wanted, I suppose, some more of that sense of contemplation that Eliot tries for:

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England…

The aesthetic pathway of spirituality may be cultural, maybe victim to changing fashions or simply growing up, but it is not to be forgotten: it creates the thin places, or sharpens the senses to see those places where prayer has been valid, where the other and the now meet. Thin places. In the church the silent near-dark was stunning, and all those poems from all those Thomases,   Thomas Merton and R S Thomas and T S Eliot (not to mention Dylan Thomas’ “close and holy darkness”) were somehow at my elbow. And maybe the incense smudge of a memory of the church when I was a child, after Compline and Benediction, or the quiet of Magdalen after Night Prayer…

But tonight it is different, and the blustery grey has been superseded by a Wild Hunt of a storm. Time then to go back in my mind to another thin place, to the little, basic cottage on the North York moors where this poem from Kathleen Raine was posted up by a previous inhabitant, and said so much about a keener, wilder, maybe more dangerous spirituality. I have cited it before.

Let in the wind,
Let in the rain,
Let in the moors tonight,
The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,
The dead that rot in the mire,
Let in the thronging ancestors,
The unfilled desire,
Let in the wraith of the dead earl,
Let in the dead tonight.

Let in the cold,
Let in the wet,
Let in the loneliness,
Let in the quick,
Let in the dead,
Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave
A covering for the void,
How can my fearful heart conceive
Gigantic solitude?
How can a house so small contain
A company so great?
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead,
Let in your love tonight.
Let in the snow that numbs the grave,
Let in the acorn-tree,
The mountain stream and mountain stone,
Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart
And frail my virgin form,
And must I then take pity on
The raging of the storm
That rose up from the great abyss
Before the earth was made,
That pours the stars in cataracts
And shakes this violent world?

Let in the fire,
Let in the power,
Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about my house
With all the violence of desire
Desiring this my peace.