Robin

It’s National Poetry Day and I’m clearing old woody clippings from an allotment that is, thanks to Rosa, coming back to life like something in Frances Hodgson Burnett. As with yesterday’s digging, I am accompanied by a robin. It is friendly enough to allow me to photograph it from close up. I love its jet-jewel eye and the way its chest moves as a bubbling song comes from somewhere in its tiny body. I love its daring proximity – it flies so close at one point, a wing brushes my leg.

Its closeness and seeming trust mean I am able to photograph it – but miss the Mafiosi magpies who swoop and bicker close by, and am nowhere near fast enough for the dive of a sparrowhawk as it twists into the trees, after some luckless songbird. After the robin? My little friend?

The theme of this poetry day is truth, and I do wonder how truth exhibits itself – or is exhibited in Nature Writing. There are the monumental and disturbing images from Underland, and the small but detailed work of taxonomy and the science of magnifiers; there is the work from Peter Fiennes on woodland, and the research from Mat about language and landscape – and then there is this robin, and the magpies and the hawk. Guardian nature writing; CaedmonGilbert White; Edgelands and the Shell Country Alphabet: they all bring something to the kaleidoscape that seeks to explore and explain and act as advocate. There is a cloud of witnesses here.

But to think about truth in Nature Writing (why those upper case letters?) and a short poem I was brought back – by that killer robin, terror of the worms I was turning over, and by the sparrowhawk that set the wrens in ear-achingly shrill panic – to the ambiguity of our gaze. The robin as my friend – or as belligerent defender of her/his turf? Sparrowhawk as dangerous thief – or as a beautiful trajectory on an autumn day?

And that gave me the poem for today, a marvel in concise, painterly imagery from Anne Stevenson, and a sharp reminder of the way our truth, our human truth is only ours, not universal:

Gannets Diving

The sea is dark
by virtue of its white lips;
the gannets, white,
by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt
with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,
though it does not appear so
to you in the speared fish.

 

 

The sparrowhawk didn’t get the robin, by the way.

A Good Story

I commented on Richard Powers’ book when I was part-way through, making connections between Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial (for me almost scriptural) Underland and Powers’ rich and mind-expanding The Overstory. For what it’s worth, the link is here. This is just a codicil, really, trying to make sense of what I think eco-literature might be.

Powers’  narratives are rich and engrossing, and while I see Patricia Westerford as having the key storyline – another character towards the end of the book hearing one of her lectures suggests this might be the author’s intention – others will follow this disparate fellowship of artists and activists, cowards and heroes in different ways. It is Westerford, the lost-then-found scientist of forest and human interbeing, who has the message from an ecological perspective:

“A fluid changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other”

and

“Our brains evolved to solve the forest…to see green is to grasp the Earth’s intentions.”

However, there is more than just sermonising here. The deliberately rhizomatic storylines, in which characters reach out, connect, have meaning gives the novel a keep-your-wits-about-you edge: challenging  and yet engrossing. The endings for the human dramatis personae are ambigous at least. Dodging round the spoilers I can just say that one character, facing a Hellish future, nonetheless finds purpose in his life past and to come, gains the one crumb of comfort possible to him: that he knows what his purpose has been, and is: to give the moral purpose of his ecological insights the story they need.

I was very conscious of this impetus – perhaps it is what has driven my reading of these final sections of The Overstory – when I was in the Lye Valley at the weekend. Lye Valley is a short walk from where I live, a SSSI, a small, very rare piece of fenland, only, really, kept up by strenuous conservation. I was impressed by the Friends of Lye Valley‘s efforts as much as I was concerned by the encroachment. IMG_0719Not the silly vandalism of arson, harsh though that is, but the more calculated threatened developments that will alter precious run-off and the way light touches some areas, of potential pollution and game-play from developers, Councils and Trusts. How small conscience-easing grants alone will not in the end preserve such a small piece of wetland in the suburbs of a land-needy city. Change is of course inevitable in so many ways: my copy of W G Hoskins Making of the English Landscape opens, I see, at the 1795 map of Middle Barton, and his comments about village development; my mind turns to the assarts of Leafield and the encroachments on and enclosures of the great forest.

I loved the Grass of Parnassus in among the wet grasses of the Lye Valley, and how its mention in a low countries herbal in the C16th might come from a visit to this very site; I loved the lousewort, the service tree  – but these are not enough to make a story, even in tiny England, let alone in a world of Amazonian fires, and in any case, what would our whingeing be to an aspiring farmer in the C18th or a family looking for land in the C14th? When as Jack Zipes says

To have a fairy tale published is like a symbolic public announcement, an intercession on behalf of oneself, of children, of civilization

I wonder if this also applies to a book as big as The Overstory or Underland?  An intercession (not a sermon) on behalf of civilization?  So is this really the purpose of ecoliterature? Not to persuade in itself – The Overstory doesn’t do that – but to give a story on which imagination and theory can come together?

[…]

I am – seriously – interrupted as I type by a blue tit fluttering and tapping the window frame, looking (I suspect) for spiders to eat. Spiders that are maybe here because of the little evening flies that I attract by having my light on.  Another little story.  I lose the thread, and have other work to do but will post this anyway, ending with half a parable. Maybe that’s all we have at the moment: collections of half-parables.

 

Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

My mention of Jane and the Pendragon in my earlier post suggested to me that some of the good things about C S Lewis’ problematic text That Hideous Strength come from the interplay between the modern world and the enigmatic emergence of Merlin, meeting with his leader, Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, a Cambridge academic who by chance or design now holds the fate of an embattled world in his hand. In a comfortable country house in England the two men are in discussion about how to save Britain – the Arthurian Logres – from the grasp of its power-hungry and immoral leaders:

Suddenly the magician. smote his hand upon his knee.
“Mehercule!” he cried.“Are we not going too fast? if you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres and I will counsel you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now. Is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres. I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it then his great men — the counts and legates and bishops — who do the evil and he does not know. of it?”
“It is — though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl.Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now.They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people.There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher.We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms.We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor…” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.

No Emperor.  Lewis’ meditation on the collapse of morality and faith comes immediately after the Second World War, another episode in the devastation of Europe in the C20th.  It is a fantasy novel, of course, and has moments of comedy, insight – and a troubling theological sexism. It would make a wonderfully quirky film – with some very notable rewriting.  It is a harking-back to a golden age that Lewis tries explicitly in some of the Narnia books, and indeed the kings and queens and heroes who come to rescue Narnia are in some ways reimaginings of the Arthurian rescue: they do not sleep under a hill, but take another life in our mundane England.

It is this that Susan Cooper is answering in her charge when her Merlin tells the children that their task is to take up the Matter of Britain themselves, not as fantasy readers or antiquarian scholars but by engaging with the power that harms and grasps and mocks. Cooper’s Merlin is more worldly wise than Lewis’ when she has him say “ the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control.” I have discussed this hard lesson before – but it is a hard lesson. Arthur will not do it; no Archbishop or Monarch is going to save us: we have to do it. Lewis’ Merlin, under the guidance of his Pendragon, rises to the challenge, and the difference between Cooper and Lewis is that his Science Fiction does have rescuers, in the tutelary spirits of the solar system who endow Merlin with supernatural power. Lewis is playing with allegory here, and in the passage cited above shows how the disjunction can be an effective plot line. Cooper saves her message for the last pages of her sequence of books, and the message is clear: in times of crisis, of confrontation, a new post-War morality requires us to step up, to make choices and to act on them.

And the “Most perilous time”?  A line from a monk on the eve of the dissolution of his monastery, another period of question, of violence, manipulation and painful reemergence. Not always are these moments of crisis just the matter of fiction.

Emmett and Caleb and

The book Emmett and Caleb is a simple story about two friends, an exploration of friendship DE186CC4-0C87-4FD2-B161-7040A806FA69not unlike DuBuc’s Up the Mountain. Hottois and Renon give us a bear and a deer who live next door to each other, and we follow them through a year and through the ups and downs of their friendship. They live in a world where a deer can check the internet in bed, and where a bear can roast chestnuts.

Ian Eagleton has already laid bare much of the complexity around this relationship in his revealing interview with the author, which is linked here. Karen Hottois says so much in her responses I couldn’t better it. There is lots more, both in the book and the interview  – nature, landscape, the seasons, freedom: I’ve tagged this post “spirituality” precisely because of this richness and the interior life of the characters it reveals.

Sarah Ardizonne the translator has deliberately chosen to use the word “love” where the French original uses “aimer, ” as an indicator of the relationship between the two characters, and Karen Hottois is clear about her intention when she talks with Ian:

To me, Emmett and Caleb are friends but I did indeed deliberately write in such a way that they might be something else. First of all because I think that the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut and because I wanted my readers (children and parents alike) to be able to interpret it as they want. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I’m told that same-sex parents enjoy the book and can identify with it.

Let’s unpick that paragraph a moment. Hottois isn’t sidestepping the question about the relationship between the two animals at all; rather she is meeting a very big question about friendship head-on.  What language do we use for a strong male-male relationship?

To start with I want to return to this blog post from a while back. I based it on the illuminating messages of Dennis Tirsch, which I expanded to say that

The sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence.

And this caution, this reverence, is what gives me great joy when reading Emmett and  Caleb – as much as when a friend calls me to meet.  It is there too in the physicality of relationships: hugs, the touch of a hand, whatever; and in the ways these physical expressions of friendship are like and unlike the ones that are part and parcel of being a dad, or even part and parcel of more involved romantic and intimate relationships. Except I’m not sure I like intimacy as a euphemism: Emmett and Caleb do not have a sexual relationship that we can see, but their relationship is certainly intimate. In a certain sense  whether their relationship is sexual doesn’t matter in the story: real intimacy is what is at the heart of the book.

Now, this sounds like a cop-out. “They don’t need to be gay like that, just really good friends” sounds like something from my parents, and that’s not what I think at all.  I do think that Love is a powerful word, and maybe it is scarily powerful for many men, but physical expressions of intimacy are not impossible. I take joy when I meet a friend in the Weston Cafe for coffee; likewise I have friends I can cry with, share poems with; friends I have taken a cup of tea in bed; friends I can dance with, borrow clothes off; friends I kiss when I haven’t got a cold; friends I have lent my dressing gown to (and readers of Emmett and Caleb will understand the references). With some friends I share really difficult stuff about my emotions, or about the pains of growing old, or the schlep of parenthood.  The Venn diagrams for all these would look like a kaleidoscope, and changes in culture change the patterns we discern, but it isn’t easy, because the word Love is not always accessible to men.

Sometimes that feels unfair: love is such a complex and involving thing, but it should be possible for men to use the term.  It’s there, but not nameable. It “dares not speak its name” because its meaning is so often seen as not complex, a simple dart of Cupid.  I cannot deny the two characters in this book that feeling, of course: books are interpretation places and anyone who comes to a book can approach it and savour it as they wish.   I can also see the tender and committed affection between bear and deer  at various points when they are tearful, or sharing the winter cold, or whatever – but it is as complicated for Emmett and Caleb as it is for us. I called this post Emmet and Caleb and because whatever the interpretation of their relationship, it stands for so many others.  They stand for me and my friends. When the deer and the bear struggle to express their feelings and they tussle about poems and messages, I am fully in agreement with Karen Hottois when she says that

the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut.

This emerged last year in the context of professional use of the word Love, too, which I discussed and is increasingly present in children’s literature. In Keith Negley’s Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) , which I have mentioned before, and which comes up in the work on masculinities and fatherhood Mat and to some extent I have been exploring, seriously characteristic, even caricature male figures – superheroes, wrestlers – are shown to have a similar relationship to their emotions. I am glad they are vulnerable – very glad this vulnerability is on show in a book for children.  Mat calls it an “optimistic and liberating story of starting down the road to a sense of emotional freedom for the modern man and father.“ Emmett and Caleb, too, live in a world where they enjoy the change of seasons, a last dance at the end of a party, thinking about each other’s birthdays… They do not live in a bloke culture where everything is painfully clear cut. And I am glad they don’t – and again, glad that this relationship is open to interpretation, to discussion, to ambiguity. My world is like that, too.

To concentrate on who Emmett and Caleb might be “in real life” or what that real life might consist of is to miss something important: the role of closeness in male friendship, a sustaining, honest closeness.

Emmett brought Caleb his dressing gown. They stayed there, keeping each other warm.

Together, like that, they could last the whole winter.

Yes, we read this and really believe they could.

 

Underland and Overstory

He still binges on old-school reading. At night he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks…There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.

Richard Powers, The Overstory, Neelay Mehta

I read.  I read fast, slow, recite, note, on line, in paper books, out loud, in silence.  I’m not unusual in this, even in the binge-reading of some of the books that have come my way recently.  I do find it tiring, sometimes, even, oddly unnerving to see a TBR (To Be Read) pile mounting – but still compulsive. Like Patricia in The Overstory:

Then the reading, her nightly thousand-mile walk to the gulf. When her eyes won’t stay open any longer, she finishes with verse…

The walk for me includes all those classics unread, new books set to educate and delight, those well-loved books from the past that I have loved long since and lost awhile; re-reading is about depth but is also about limit and comfort, too (I finish with M R James more often: verse just makes me want to write)… The urge to read is maybe one reason why I go back to well-loved favourites ( for example, I have just got my third copy of C S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength*), even when tired at the end of a day.

Just sometimes, however, a pile of books present themselves that are of such quality that any sense of “one sodding thing after another” (to reuse the judgement on history from one of Alan Bennett’s  History Boys) is completely lost. As the title of this post suggests, they are Rob Macfarlane’s magisterial Underland and Richard Powers’ The Overstory.  In this case it’s two books: not really a pile.

“Reading,” Margaret Meek suggests, “demands explanations beyond the information given about the surface features of language, important as that undoubtedly is.”  It is with this in mind that I reached nearly half-way through Overstory and found this line, the culmination (or at least first-act closer) of the story of a botanist who discovers that forests are themselves ecological systems with their own means of communication:

There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.

The echoes with Underland and the wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake do not need repeating. Woodlands are not there to be judged as needing tidying.   – except that the human users want things a certain way. On the way I often run, for example, there is a young dead badger: already a bit bloated, with flies on its fur and the sweet smell starting. Do I look at it as part of a massive pattern, a fractal maybe, which at my level is discernible as flies and fungus and young trees and older ones, soil that was the badger’s life – or do I impose my need, even the drive of my spirituality (misplaced, I think) to show it respect?  In reading Underland and then The Overstory, I know how illiterate I am, like Powers’ prisoner, here:

If he could read, if he could translate…If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organised, the murderous freezes, the suffering and the struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction in every season this tree has ever lived.

Leave the badger by the path in the wood, move it, bury it?  Clear it up, and the pattern shifts: do we intrude by trying to make sense or enter the dance? Write about the history of Warneford Meadow in an effort to explain these scrubby trees to one side in what is grandly called a wildlife corridor? Look (as Paul Kingsnorth does in his essay on Burnham Beeches in Arboreal) at the networks of mycelial threads even here?  Maybe seeing it is our part in the pattern?  I confess that, in reading these books, I have been feeling elated and dismayed, disepmowered and propelled to try and and understand. And if we don’t try, then, bleakly as one character finds 

All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia.

All we have left is commodification, where even story is no longer an invitation to greater understanding but simply the cheap tricks of landscape depiction, a collection of backdrops and no more.

Arboreal, Common Ground, Underland, The Overstory and so much magnificent writing all stand as a challenge.

Turn but a stone and start a wing

or miss the many-splendoured thing?

IMG_0245

 

_____________

*As a diversion: To me Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is a book at once of its time and horrifyingly prescient in its vision of popularist seizing of media and power that is accompanied by radical and appalling dehumanisation. I admire some bits (the almost-not-there Institute Director who roams the corridors: every academic has known him), I love others (the discussion between Merlin and the C20th academic who has to bring him up to date), and have to say I wince at others – not least the final paragraphs). Of its time is a periphrasis or maybe euphemism for the fact that it is all terribly clubbable, Oxbridgy stuff with a deep theology of sexism thrown in…  So why the re-read?

The Great Events?

55BCE, 597CE, 793CE, 1066CE, 1282CE, 1534CE, 1588CE, 1649CE, 1707CE, 1714CE, 1922CE…  pick your date for an event or series of events that define England, or Britain. There are others, and the ones I have chosen may say more about my poor historical knowledge or prejudice than anything. There are also occurrences which pass without comment at the time or which we cannot date certainly because no record exists: when really does Britain cease to be Roman? Or when did the last wolf die? Why does one date matter? Will the referendum on 23rd June 2016 be eclipsed by a final unequivocal date or will that be the one history picks as the The Date We Left Europe? The Date Things Changed?

We cannot dictate, and maybe can’t predict with certainty. Perhaps something else will intervene to take precedence – the failure of electricity, a catastrophic event such as the melting of the polar ice? What does strike me is that this simplistic history suggests that one date was important, and that the messiness before or after are somehow lesser occurrences that don’t matter. And that the massive changes were not contested, opposed, or that those who did contest were ridiculed, sacked, sidelined, imprisoned, killed. I feel as if I signed the Terms and Conditions for C21st without reading them, and I think of Tom Holland’s brilliant book on the Millennium, where in effect Western Europe did try and sign particular Ts&Cs only to find a new millennium just as complex and hard. A single date just doesn’t work. 1066 is one date: do we (and I need to exclude historians here, of course) consider the harrying of the North?

The counsellors in the decades/centuries of Christian consolidation; subjugated  Saxons after the death of Harold in 1066; recusant Catholics – all these people would attest that these great events are never simple. These “events that shaped Britain” were the cause of pain and unquiet: families divided, economic disturbance… and we are seeing the same in our time, in ways I never thought to see, never wanted to see. “Project Fear,” in which the UK suffers terrible upheaval, may not come to pass, or it may – but this evening I am wondering quite what will come. I suspect it’s going to be big, and an unpleasant change. I am gloomy, and predict a rowing back from liberties won, well-being improved. I feel the sharp tug of solastalgia.

Why is this part of this blog? Over the next few days I will have the pleasure of being outside with learners of various kinds. Some theory, lots of practice: a challenge for me, but a very welcome one. I will be making a plea – directly and indirectly – for the pleasure of being outside to be seen as a driver of a life well lived. Ecological wrongdoing in the Anthropocene will impact on people’s wellbeing; economic changes, greed and “austerity” planning may mean that parks and woodland will change. But I hope that people – maybe the young people I meet or the families they will work with – will still see the energy of plants and bugs and the movement of clouds and look for joy and delight and maybe transcendence.

Because all these things are transient, this Jeremiad included. And I think that with the little time I have, I want to help people find joy in the small things, and see our interconnectedness with bigger ones:

I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Yes, Mary Oliver does it again, this time in her poem Rice.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.