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.

Jeremiads

A Snowflake Writes?

It is a wet Saturday evening as I start to write. That’s not to say that damp days are always a bad thing, but tonight as I look out the world looks gloomy. Somehow the continued botches of our current government around schools and safety in this time of potential illness are the worst, filling me with dread for what is to come: popularism that does not even have efficiency on its side, last-minute patches on policy: adhocracy as someone described it to me.

This sat with an increasing but largely unacknowledged personal malaise – sleeplessness, irritability, all sorts of stuff I should have seen as part of a tide of – what? Anxiety and a feeling that I was alone and unloveable. The moan of the irrational snowflake? The weariness that attaches itself to people just fed up of so many things going wrong: plague after plague: the boils and lice of 2020. The weariness of isolation so perfectly caught by Shirley Collins in her haunting Locked in Ice – the fearful guarantee that I’d be run aground. Not so much a snowflake, then, but a blizzard.

There is sometimes a temptation to see the present hard times as very limited “over by Christmas” – but it is worth remembering that the concertina effect of some historical reflection sees Henry VIII’s destruction as a short blip, or the Vikings who came and were violent and then set up the Danelaw in a few episodes, or even further back, the siege of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon as soon over: a blizzard soon past, when in fact they lasted years, with effects still felt in culture and outlook. The malaise we suffer spiritually will not, I fear, pass any quicker than the physical illness. And that makes me sad, to say the least.

But if we’re going Biblical, the gloom of the prophet Jeremiah is worth considering here. In Ch 8 his poetic/prohetic voice depicts a rudderless land where hopes have withered.

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Dolor meus super dolorem in me cor meum maerens.

Jeremiah 8: 18 (KJV/Vulgate)

In the line adopted (to tragi-comic effect) by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the prophet bemoans

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Transiit messis finita est aestas et nos salvati non sumus.

Jeremiah 8:20 (KJV/Vulgate)

Why isn’t it (define “it,” of course) sorted by now? All those utopias we wanted by the autumn: where are they? Why can I not track this package, of all the packages I ordered?

Of course the reason it’s not here is the complex relationships to all the solutions people want: ecojustice; social liberation; touch; an end to greedy politicians squirrelling away money and holding power by sweaty lies. The recent protest against vaccinations and masks is enough to show how divided we all are, how mistrust in all sorts of causes and solutions is deeply eating into what passes for society. Mistrust, selfishness and what seems like no way out: we seem in a quicksand of grime, and so when C S Lewis’ saintly hero Ransom is explaining to Merlin how the world has changed since the time of Arthur, he describes modern society vividly:

…maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands.

C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength

But Lewis’ near-apocalyptic, celestial intervention will not do, even for a Christian reading a Christian apologist. We are back to that other Merlin, Cooper’s Merriman Lyon and his charge that it is up to us. The writer of the Apocalypse – as I read it, full of an impotent rage as persecution strikes the early Church – looks for a world where a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) will replace the turmoil of the present. He is looking to external agents for a big show-down, when I think we need to look closer to home, as I have said in a previous blog post – to compassion, to peace-making.

We feel we are on the edge of time, as individuals we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

Thich Nhat Hahn: Being Peace

I got so far in my thinking about the lessons I took from Jeremiah and from Thich Nhat Hahn and I ask: what might my response be to the current crises – these interlocking disasters of various kinds – which despite the noises and wishes I see in my corner of Twitter will not go away quickly: what do I do as Jeremiah is persecuted and the city falls, and the Babylonian exile begins? The Shirley Collins song summed it up: a little Ghost Ship on the Beaufort Sea: where the ice goes, I go.

And then the ice breaks, just a bit. Enough. It starts with a sunnier day, the warm, open expression of gratitude from a dear friend, and then Maggie and I started sharing Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays, Vesper Flights (some of which I had already heard on the BBC). She laments the loss of a meadow from her childhood and hopes for its restoration in a new building development:

The pull on my heart is also the pain of knowing that this is possible, but that it is very unlikely. Centuries of habitat loss and the slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Tekels Park

Never reversed. Yes, I can see that, almost taste it sometimes. Yet just as I’ve cited the idea of 3 Ways of compassionfor self; for others; from others – there is also something of an answer in these first pages:

Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those who are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Introduction.

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.

Texts for Difficult Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Only a Story

Only a story gathered from the hills
And the wind crying of forgotten days,
A story that shall whisper, “All things change-
For friends do grow indifferent, and loves
Die like a dream at morning: bitterness
Is the sure heritage of all men born…

In that this post presents a melancholy young poet, this is a sadder blog than many – and less of a sermon than many of my posts too, I hope.

Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s small collection of poetry, A Spring Harvest (which forms a pivotal sequence at the end of the Tolkein biopic) suggests that GBS was lonely, frustrated, but aware of the power of language to conjure emotion and fantasy. A clever depiction of a friend, a tentative exploration of sexuality before WWI, and love and religion and class, and… and… and a lens for the film to show the ways in which some people can delight and fascinate: almost, it seems, an explanation of the ways in which the writer of Lord of the Rings (and so much more) learned to charm. A film of the student Tolkien learning Icelandic would have been less likely to win over an audience (I would have gone), or to explain how a boy with an unhappy childhood grew and blossomed into such a creative influence in C20th literature.

Just like his poem of the Downs – not Uffington although for me it evokes those memories, and I can hear Chesterton’s poem in Bache Smith’s – the young man is himself a track half lost in the green hills. It is a sad shame – a tragedy, a waste, a horror – that Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live and grow: maybe he might have blossomed into a greater poet, or a thoughtful adult scholar, or whatever. These poems, and a footnote in the young adult life of a great writer, are what we have left : a voice heard once, and heard no more, as GBS himself suggests in a Commemoration poem. For us Only a Story is hardly a story at all, and we pass on.

This sense of sic transit, of the fragility of life and fame and love runs through so many of his poems, made all the more poignant by his death in 1916. And here we are, not at war (despite the rhetoric) but in trouble in a world where sickness and greed and neglect and politics have combined to bring about a major crisis, the aftermath of which I doubt I shall live to see wholly resolved, where the call to compassion has to be repeated over and again. We look daily at death as though numbers are all we can make of tragedy. Media vita in morte sumus. It is therefore a bittersweet thing to look at these poems – I first read them in the cellars of the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian, but now find them online – and wonder about all the missed opportunities and times of sadness that GBS explores. Here, in his poem The Last Meeting, he preceded a very similar idea from Yeats, and tells us something that Oxford was imbued with for me as an undergraduate: that many things fade, but that some are more than transitory, loves that shall break the teeth of Time:

We who are young, and have caught the splendour oflife,
Hunting it down the forested ways of the world,
Do we not wear our hearts like a banner unfurled
(Crowned with a chaplet of love, shod with the sandals of strife)?
Now not a lustre of pain, nor an ocean of tears
Nor pangs of death, nor any other thing
That the old tristful gods on our heads may bring
Can rob us of this one hour in the midst of the years.

The poem I cite at the top of this blog almost stands as a rebuke to Tolkien, suggesting that GBS is writing about love, not the great deeds of history or legend. The one that follows, while still with a melancholy feel, is at least a seasonal celebration

Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung

so here is Geoffrey Bache Smith’s Sonnet:

There is a wind that takes the heart of a man,
A fresh wind in the latter days of spring,
When hate and war and every evil thing
That the wide arches of high Heaven span
Seems dust, and less to be accounted than
The omened touches of a passing wing:
When Destiny, that calls himself a king,
Goes all forgotten for the song of Pan:
For why? Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung,
Because the voice of trees finds better words
Than ever poet from his heartstrings wrung:
Because all wisdom and all gramarye
Are writ in fields, O very plain to see.

Edgelands

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Boundary Brook.

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

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

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

and elsewhere

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

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

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

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. 10: Fecundity

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

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

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

The Unofficial Countryside: Bearings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” The demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.

Inner Tube at Mike’s House

One of the delights of using dictation software – and I use it increasingly to note down quotations – is the wild guesses it makes about words. Has it got used to me with place names such as Ludchurch or Uffington? I don’t know. As this blog post’s title suggests, it certainly wasn’t prepared for the dark and sacred depths of “the inner tomb at Maeshowe.” Maeshowe or Maes Howe, whose significance (detailed in very modern terms here) lies in its being, along with the rest of the complex archaeology of the area, such an astonishing “example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape…” Even the dry report cannot escape a tone of wonder.

But I have to come clean and admit where I am: in my study in Headington, reading Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing. It has some spellbindingly great writing, and shares insights from all sorts of digging and wandering and wondering and loving from Sutherland (and back again) through the discarded bikes and tundra-preserved past of the Yup’ik and the eyes and spirals of the Noltland dig and the rummage through the layers of the author’s own life. Careful here, Nick, not to unearth too much: the book demands its own read.

But at least I can share a few things: all, this time, from the central section (as I read it) of Jamie’s visits to the Orkneys. It is full of lovely lines and images: If seals could watch Netflix, they would and I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of hard to know there is still room in the world for a summers day and a cow called Daisy.

The author is shown a warehouse of finds:

Graeme opened one particular box to show me a slender implement reminiscent of those nibbled pens we used at school, to practise joined up handwriting. It could have come from his own school house.

“You see how the tip is stained dark?” He said. “We think it was used for tattooing…“

Hazel and Graeme showed me more beads, some made of animal teeth, and half-made beads, lots of beads. Thick pins of bone, as long as your hand, presumably used for fastening clothing…

For a moment, out of the twenty-first–century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, they emerged a vision of people closed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

Jamie has already asked about Neolithic ghosts, concluding, maybe rather sadly, that Ghosts have a half-life, it seems, lingering just a few hundred years, till they too fade away. I am reminded of the ghostly Lord Kildonan whose haunting fades with the years in M R James’s Residence at Whitminster – only to reemerge some years later in a different form. It could be an allegory of sorts for the antiquarian. Here in the Victorian warehouse however, she seems able to conjure such spirits like Prospero as she speculates on the Neolithic settlers:

Different groups, with their different clothing and accents, tools and designs arriving here, but very soon after their arrival, there will be no one alive who could remember the journey. Doubtless there were stories. Origin stories. Contact with other peoples of the same ilk, who spoke the same language, at other settlements. Great ceremonial gatherings, informed by movements of sun and moon, risings and settings, alignments of stones. The midwinter sunrise shines down the passageway at Newgrange, the midwinter sunset illuminates the inner tomb at Maeshowe.

How did they know that, these kids of twenty or thirty years old, with their bone and stone tools?

I am reminded of the poem of Frances Horovitz Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall (from her Snow Light, Water Light, and found in this collection) which likewise looks at finds at contemplates a culture long gone. Starting with the confident To Jove, best and greatest she chants the museum labels – billhook, holdfast, trivet/latch lifter, nail lifter, snaffle bit… until she reaches the unknowns and uncertainties dedication partly obliterated/with human figure in rude relief… All a bit of a challenge for the dictation software, because they are outside the range of frequency to be picked up by the software: just not used enough? So I am back thinking of the Lost Words – but then, oddly, of the book that inspired so many daydreams when Maggie and I were first married, John SeymoursSelf Sufficiency. Such daydreams – and tonight is simply the Allotment AGM, and I am “doing the teas.”

One of the joys of the modern nature writers is that they will not only write of the sod lit hut by a seal-oil lamp but also of the welcome cuppa, not only a song about time and change but also about pub night and Wifi. The Inner Tube at Mike’s House would not be out of place. Kathleen Jamie is a writer whose poetic instinct draws us into her world of spirituality and history and topography; she is another of those writers, Rob Macfarlane, Peter Fiennes, Rob Cowen… travel writers, nature writers, topographers in what Robert Mac’s Cambridge page calls Geohumanities. A neat (and maybe not uncritical) review of Macfarlane and Jamie and the phenomenon of British nature writing appears here.

As an aside: the more I think of that term, the more I like it. It is Geohumanities (as a metonymy) that impells the glossaries in Landmarks; that makes connections (reliable or not) in Watkins’ The Old Straight Track, that watch the revelation of Yup’ik past in Surfacing… I am beginning to wonder whether it is a term that could be applied to fiction, too: to Peter Dickinson’s The Kin, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse. I don’t think I have an answer.

If all goes well, I will be taking time soon with my friend Mat on Uffington White Horse. In my hand I will have my (now signed!) copy of David MilesThe Land of the White Horse. On my ‘phone I will have a collection of poems about the place: Jon Stallworthy, G K Chesterton, and if I can find it in time, Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s poem which celebrates the Ridgeway – and of course Frances Horovitz. They all speak – in very different ways – of how landscape and language interrelate: Chesterton is full of a great battle that made England; Horovitz has a mystical white horse that she urges to strike fire to the earth from air. But behind all of this will be the repeated challenge of Kathleen Jamie that all the writers I’m lauding here are answering, as she asks again and again:

Why feel anything? Do you understand? Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The path is at your feet, see?

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.