People of the Sea

GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing

I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that

The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …

K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.

While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as

A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.

Illusions and Resurrections
selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium
translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson

but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.

People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.

And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.

The characters are “between worlds” ( a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.

Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.

It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Edward as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.

*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]

Waking Early

There is, of course, the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, praising the chance warming of the earth by the sun that I cited in the post Texts for Difficult Times: to ease us with warm touching,/ to hold us in the great hands of light… and when I woke at 04:40, (far too) early today I could have wished I’d had learned the poem.

And in the opening scene of Anouilh’s Antigone, the eponymous protagonist almost deceives us into thinking she has just been out exploring the glories of the early dawn:

Dans les champs, c’était tout mouillée, et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j’étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n’était pas moi qu’on attendait…

It was cold – sandals, t-shirt, trousers weren’t quite enough. And damp, with mud from the May rains, with dew in the long grass. And oddly noisy. Antigone might have been aware of the noise she made, but I was aware of passing traffic, the waste disposal truck in the Old Road Campus and all the other hums and buzzes the buildings make. And then, in the shadow of the dip towards the brook, the sound of birds and water.

There really are few things as precious as the quiet morning where the running water and the songbirds are an obbligato to the experience. Is this because they signify food and water somewhere deep in my brain? I am struck by the question that looks bigger and bigger the more I look at it: why do we find these things beautiful?

Antigone is right: this wasn’t a show waiting for me to take my seat, and while we might take delight that the happy birds are singing their Te Deums (the reference is first to Mrs Oldknow, but I think Lucy Boston is referring to this Maytime hymn), their cries are for territory, for food, for sex.

Oh, but hang on a minute: does that mean that birds being birds isn’t exactly what they should be doing? And if you see any sort of purpose or numinous element to a dawn chorus, does it need to be imposed on the birds actually supplying the music? Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins (maybe) have it right: to glory in these things, simply to see

…all around us

this country

of original fire

Mary Oliver: Humpbacks

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Binsey Poplars

might involve us using these as image, symbol, metaphor – but the thisness of the birds and the brook really doesn’t need me to be there. Mary Oliver is almost brutal in her version of this message:

…there is still

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth

is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Mary Oliver: Morning Poem

And from a theological standpoint, I can’t impose on the crows, the woodpecker, the thrushes my human-shaped pieties. The Te Deum of a bird is to be a bird. So to end here is Roger Deakin’s account of his own waking early, and hearing the birds around his Suffolk house:

It is actually quite noisy with birdsong here, all concentrated into a mile of hedgerows – full, wide, dense hedges like the ramparts of a castle. A kind of maze of them surrounds the little friend, and the birds love them for making nests. So there is great competition amongst all the birds for space, for a few square yards of territory, and do they sing longer and louder and more lustily… And for a bird the most important aspect of household management is singing. Perching as high up as you can and singing for as long and as hard as you can.

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

Do I Deserve Sicily?

Quoniam placuerunt servis tuis lapides ejus

It is hugely tempting to fill a blog that I’ve given headings like this with photos of holidays and trips I have had. Ruins I have visited, cities I have met and loved. Let me get some out of the way.

It may give the impression I have seen all sorts of wonders all round the world but I am not really very well travelled: unlike my dad whose Moominpappa-like Misspent Youth included trips in the Merchant Navy to Japan, South Africa and all sorts of places, my furthest trips have been to the Gambia for work, and holidays in Europe. And yet for some people this is a lot of travelling: my Mum saw France, but no further, and for some, finance or responsibilities or fear of flying put journeys out of reach. For nearly twenty years – as a young dad – I didn’t have a current passport.

So when I see the suggestion that people need or deserve a holiday abroad I can’t help but baulk at the idea. It’s not the air miles and pollution, although that does worry me increasingly (and I do like trains anyway: waking up on the train to Provence to see a field of sunflowers was as amazing, in its way, as the romance of Paris in the early morning after the Nuit Blanche trip on ferry and train from Victoria in the 70s). No, it’s not even the “Bali or Brighton” divide: I think its the notion of deserving something or needing it being confused with wanting something very badly or having your expectations denied. “You can’t have that wish” is something we find alien to our mindset – although in a not-so-distant-past it is a recurring response to Little Bear‘s wishes.

So I’ve wandered (rather aimlessly) through some of the literature on desert – starting from the ideas of “deserving degrees” – and came across this, very much off my usual track:

It may simply be the folly of the gods, to make us act out for one another, for their amusement, when ultimately little is accomplished…Whether in our conjugal relations, our political systems, our commercial interactions, even in our cultivation of art and science, there is illusion and deception

Kevin Hoover in Copp, D., & Sobel, D. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other

And perhaps that “acting out” is really the key to the problem. As George MacDonald puts it – or rather how C S Lewis in the mouth of MacDonald puts it:

There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self- Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.’

C S Lewis, The Great Divorce

In other words, we are keen to say we need and deserve in order to grandstand our desires; we would choose unhappiness as a lever to get what we want. It is caricatured in the anonymous ditty

Madam Dill

Is very ill

And nothing will improve her.

Until she sees

The Tuileries

And waddles through the Louvre.

But often it is an illusion. This isn’t about help when someone is physically or mentally ill, but I think we have to see that Madam Dill does not need her trip to Paris any more than this pundit or that feels anything more serious than serious disappointment when they cannot get to their favourite quaiside taverna. I may (to come to my subtitle) love the very stones of Villeneuve lez Avignon be sad not to see them, but we deceive ourselves by thinking that this disappointment is something the cosmos has engineered to rob us of our rights. We might find some balm by visiting our places of significance, from the pub for a pint onwards, but I suspect that in many cases this is not the same as desiring them fervently. Lockdown in COVID times has heightened some of my needs and wishes to almost silly levels, and I do really miss my friends, my family, some amazing places I had planned to see this year – but I have to recognise that somewhere in my “I want it very badly” is just “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick” – and while the lack makes me sad, I am not likely in all honesty to be able to say “I deserve…”

Firth of Forth

So to conclude, and maybe to cheer me up, are some places of significance – I won’t embarrass anyone by putting people – that I do want to see really badly at the moment. Here is the Firth of Forth, all flat sands and rock pools and Eiders, a place (and people) I associate with freedom and quiet and love.

Or – and these last two are no surprise if you have followed my journeys at all – that I have to include as places that mean a lot to me, the Tors in the Cheshire borderlands, and that Monreale-like face in the rocks at Ludchurch.

Excelsior

Exaltabunt omnia ligna silvarum

Then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice

When the Catholic liturgy describes one particular tree – perhaps it needs an upper-case T – it is notable that it is described in very positive terms: fidelis, nobilis, dulce lignum. Faithful, noble, a sweet wood. In the great C6th hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, the cross, Roman instrument of shameful execution, is turned into something of beauty. The shame of imperial Rome, the curse of Deuteronomy, the paradox of Pauline theology are seen in the context of the good thing these pieces of wood have done. The poem Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis Sing, tongue about the the battle, of the glorious struggle places this tree sola digna, the only worthy one, uncomfortably side by side the images of torture. Far enough in time from the grim reality of the cross, Venantius brilliantly uses the repeated dulcis – sweet – to apply to what later writers call the Instruments of the Passion and to the body of Jesus: sweet iron, sweet wood, a sweet burden. The poet is writing in praise of this particular wood as part of the cult of the Holy Cross: crudely put, we might see this as an advert for the cross whose veneration he is proposing.

When Psalm 95 (or 96 in some versions) suggests a primacy for the God presented in the books of the Faiths of the Book, it bursts its banks towards the end, and the poet pictures a world where the heavens and the earth, the field and the woods, are alive with joy. It is part of that same thread of nature poetry that runs through these songs, perhaps too often missed because of the overlying themes of later exegesis. I have discussed this with another psalm here. I sometimes wonder whether we miss a big idea when ignore these great Biblical bursts of exuberant delight in the natural world, although other poets do well with the vision of the warmer days (often a little later than early April) and the trees in blossom, from Sumer is i-cumen in through to the pastoral lute songs and madrigals of the C16th. Time spent cooped up when blood is nipp’d is more or less over: a time to be liberated from close supervision, from chores and obligations is here. I look up from my typing just now at the (of course, wisely still bare) ash tree in the garden and am reminded of Peter Fiennes’s comment:

The ash is one of nature’s friendliest trees – its Latin name Fraxinus excelsior is a shout of joy and wonder.

P Fiennes “A river runs through it” in Oak and Ash and Thorn

A chill, bright day in Shotover on Easter Monday echoed that and shout – and if the ash is not yet up to budburst, many of the other trees of the wood are awake and rejoicing. Where I had been sitting on my birthday in February is beginning to dapple with light coming through honeysuckle and hazel; cherry and blackthorn are shining with new blossom. The sky is a clear blue. April, chill but bright, is here.

Water

Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.

With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .

Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.

We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.

But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”

…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.

Canticle of the Creatures

The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.

An Earlier Life

Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space between them, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.

So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.

I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…

The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart

And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.

First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?

Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.

There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?

By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.

The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.

So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?

The very sky no longer high

Comes down within the reach of all.

John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)

So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?

Jim Crumley again:

If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…

An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.

A foot stamps.

You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.

The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus

Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:

She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.

Ibid

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

I

held my breath

as we do

sometimes

to stop time

when something wonderful

has touched us.

Mary Oliver: Snow Geese

I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.

Worms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our plaited genes mean nothing to the spheres;

contingency, not prayer, will plot your course.

Anne Stevenson, To Phoebe (at five months)

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

The sea is dark

by virtue of its white lips;

the gannets, white,

by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt

with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,

though it does not appear so

to you in the speared fish.

Anne Stevenson: Gannets Diving

When blood is nipp’d

Shotover, and a birthday walk.

I took with me one of the books I was given as a present: Qing Li’s Into the Forest, (pictured above, left). This is a well-produced and scholarly look at Shinrin-Yoku, Forest Bathing – and this blog post is, in part, a response to the book and the practices it affirms. Qing Li is an epidemiologist in Japan, and the book is at once a toe-in-the-water popular account of the research, and a “how-to” guide to a practice of which Dr Li is a major proponent. Oh yes, in the West it’s a fad perhaps, and, at its lightest, simply a wish-list of mindfulness practices in nice places, but its underlying messages are worth consideration – the kind of thing I clumsily contemplated back in 2018. For example, here (p121) are Qing Li’s proposals for engaging the senses:

  • Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees
  • Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches
  • Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural therapy of phytoncides
  • Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths
  • Place your hands on the trunk of the tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground
  • Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness

And here I was on my birthday with a walking pole – a bare, stout stick – in a sunny, chilly local wood. A raven kronks and kaarks overhead. I sit by a brook and watch a robin. A muntjac comes up to me and then, suddenly spooked, disappears into the bushes and bracken. What did I go out into the wilderness to see?

I didn’t go out to see the beautiful photography that genuinely enriches this book (so much so that I sent it to my rather immobile and certainly locked-down dad). I know Shotover, I know Oxfordshire in winter when blood is nipp’d and ways be foul; this is not the hinoki tree, or the Sagano bamboo forest in the book – or the massive stands of bamboo we met while in Montpellier on holiday. This isn’t a criticism of the book, which has, I know, to have a wider appeal that just to me – but its gorgeous photographs of forests and leaves and sky make me wonder about the woodlands we have access to here in southern England in winter.

Connection to people may well be part of the human condition, and certainly forms part of what I would think of as my own experience of spirituality (I look back at this post and see how it is crammed with names) but on my birthday I spent time alone, not fretting over tasks to be done, or mooning over missed friends or thinking of crass mistakes and mishaps of the past. It was as if my present to myself, or maybe my present from Maggie (who gave me the Into the Forest book) was an opportunity to look over the shoulders of these concerns. I’m aware of the human activity around me, aware of what human activity there has been in the past, but today it’s about hearing the leaves. It’s not even remotely transcendent: it’s just leaves and robins.

As Qing Li puts it,

The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think… In the forest we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.

Into the Forest, p166.

Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is worth citing here, both from the 1989 book The Experience of Nature she and Steven Kaplan wrote, and from other writers looking at their work such as this readable little introduction. I explored it here in a blog post just as my last year at Brookes was coming to a close. To relieve the overburdening experiences of desk bound, urban life, “mental fatigue,” she recommends being engrossed in the environment, purposeful exploration and a real sense of “being away.” It is remarkably similar to the Japanese movement – but again, can we truly escape in suburban Britain? The wood I was in, Brasenose Wood, at the foot of Shotover, has a constant thrum of traffic from the Oxford ring road, and although it is possible to screen it out, doing so is an extra task.

The trees were so grey it made the greens of mosses stand out as if they were lit from within; the sky, when it is blue, is likewise full of light, and on my birthday, it was like Inchbold’s Study in March. As the recent snow melted the trickles were everywhere. At my first stop, I listened under the traffic burr to the water, the robins, a kite high up in the sky. The increased quiet as I went further up and further in (the reference is to C S Lewis) was obvious. The high trees moved and rattled in the wind. On Shotover I am not away in a wilderness miles wide, but making the Edgelands a place where at least some of this escape is possible.

Coracoid processes

Some thoughts on my Christmas reading

Trying to pick common themes from my Christmas present gifts is a tall order, but with the title I have given this post, I have to start from Joe Shute and his book A Shadow Above, an account of ravens, the bird that, as the author says, embodies our best and worse impulses and symbolises our deepest fears. It is Joe’s book that takes me to the Sutcliff-like Iron Age and, taking in The Wanderer, to the mind- boggling archaeology of Danebury, where ritual mutilation and burial of ravens has been discovered:

Why did our ancestors choose to be buried alongside ravens? The theory now being suggested by a growing number of academics and archaeologists is that by placing ravens in these pits, they were offered up as gifts to the gods of the underworld… In a society where birds and animals were seen as a continuum of human life rather than as something existing alongside it, the ravens were there to perpetuate the existence of the human soul and be our companion and guide in the afterlife.

A Shadow Above, Ch 2: Bird of Omen

Ravens as corpse stealers, wisdom bringers, companions in death and scavengers of battle-fields bring me to Annie Dillard, the inescapable prophet of what it’s like to live alongside ‘nature.’

Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings in the skull…

The Abundance, One Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley

…the canary that sings in the skull, or the raven that sits on (in) the shoulder?

It is by pure coincidence that I chose to put my three ravens high up by my clavicle, a palpation (or less) away from the raven-like (or raven’s-beak-like) structure in the shoulder, but today, thanks to these two authors it strikes me as significant – we make a bony structure seem like a raven, I sit three ravens on my shoulder – and as Dougie Strang, standing on the mound Diarmaid’s Grave, proclaims in his essay in Antlers of Water

I’d no idea what lay beneath me. Stories attach themselves to ancient sites, building layers of meaning that aren’t always consistent with the archaeology. The mound at Cunside is ambiguous: it might be the remains of a Bronze Age cairn, or the graver of a Viking raider who sailed up the Kyle, or simply a pile of stones, cleared from the infield byu early settlers. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that those who lived at Cunside knew that this was Diarmaid’s grave and that his story put them in their place.

Dougie Strang, Diarmaid’s Grave, in Antlers of Water, ed Kathleen Jamie

and I wonder about that raven in my shoulder, another bump in the landscape that carries a story, a symbol. We make patterns, we explain, we tell stories – and maybe we tell stories about our bodies like we tell stories about our land, our past. The Highland grave of a long-gone hero, looming over Christmastide Bethlehem and the green shadows of Ludchurch and Gawain… travel writing, nature writing, spiritual writing: stories in a time of lockdown

At once I am relying again on the contemplative footsteps of Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff, on the keen eye of Mat Tobin, to see what there is to see, to learn the legends that explain landscape – and with them I can hear my own worry that we are becoming incurious about the wild spaces and about their stories.

A word or two from Joe Shute, to ground me in the real worlds of the ferocious intelligence of ravens. Here he is meeting Loki and Elliott, one of his humans:

He is startlingly tactile with Elliott, jumping onto his shoulder and head and allowing him to stroke his black, glossy plumage. It takes a few minutes for him to settle and grow used to the strange faces looking in at him, then he permits us to stroke his soft neck-feathers too. This close the raven’s plumage is an array of purple, greens and brown that pool shimmering together.

Ch 4, Speaking with Ravens

And here we see Joe out in the dark, in the wilds of Anglesey, and despite the shadows this is vivid, grounded writing:

We stand together in silence as the ravens settle and the nightly dialogue begins.

How to describe the calls? The pig snorts, rolling logs, horse hooves on a hard road, chittering primates and popping champagne corks that come to my ears, seem far too parochial manifestations of this preternatural medley. As the night passes, we even hear snatches of raven song, a whispered ethereal sound barely audible through the chorus.

Ch 8 A Night in a Raven Roost

As with so much in Antlers of Water, the really vivid in A Shadow Above is in the actual, the seen and touched, the place driven to. But this reading week after Christmas has included the transcendental nature writing of Annie Dillard: she must have the last word in this post, a call for reverence and beauty, the stuff that has sustained me in troublesome 2020 and will doubtless be needed in the coming year:

This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant…loud as music, filling the grasses and skies

Annie Dillard, The Abundance, Paganism

A Christmas Star?

In a monumental stumble – or set of stumbles – the current government have altered the COVID-19 restrictions from those they imposed so recently – and with such derision of others. They have proved themselves unequal to the pressures they face within and without. Today’s U-turn is one no amount of privileged bluster and Oxford Union rhetoric should be able to cover. This is not Isaiah’s or Vergil’s messianic comfort; this isn’t even a dull year of personal and societal trudge – so what is it?

It is not just the “cancelling of Christmas” that makes me think of Narnia and its blighted time of always winter and never Christmas (a thoughtful little post here), but as people look for the gathering conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn I look for the first turnings to justice and restoration that are the pivot in the first chapters in the story of the young prince Caspian. Here the prince is with his tutor Doctor Cornelius:

https://images.app.goo.gl/tNNLJDpvLm6QAtJa6

There was no difficulty in picking out the two stars they had come to see. They hung rather low in the southern sky, almost as bright as two little moons and very close together.
“Are they going to have a collision?” he asked in an awestruck voice.
“Nay, dear Prince,” said the Doctor (and he too spoke in a whisper). “The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest.’

C S Lewis: Prince Caspian Ch 4

All of a sudden the half-glimmers of hope of Caspian’s story begin to come true, and the Kings and Queens of old come back, and Narnia is restored. There is, in Caspian’s terror and joy, something of Betjeman’s repeated question And is it true? And is it true…?

And tonight it feels very far from the cosy querulousness of Betjeman – but while I am thinking of Lewis and Betjeman, I can skip forward to more earthy and grounded words of comfort from perhaps the greatest character in Lewis’ Narnia, Puddleglum:

Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.

C S Lewis The Silver Chair, ch 12

So I may not see a Christmas conjunction, when we see with Vergil redeunt Saturnia regna, the kingdom of Saturn returns, and next year I may see, along with the rest of Britain, a poor excuse for a country run by self-servers pandering to xenophobes. But I may hope for more – as Betjeman looks beyond The sweet and silly Christmas things I have to look at more than the ways deep and the weather sharp,/The very dead of winter (more on this poem another time, but the conjunction and the Magi couldn’t be passed over).

And my response (to return to gloomy Pugddleglum) will have to be to stamp on the fires of deceit and hopelessness – including my own self-deceit and self-pity.