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.

Bowstrings

August. Not the month before September: August in its own right.

Some notable feast days – this week the Transfiguration, for example, but Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta, the Assumption, Maximilian Kolbe… – and for many in Europe at least a bit of downtime. Time to ignore the calls for educators to work all the hours they may rather than all the hours of their contract, or time to be judicious in the ways in which “given time” (the current generation’s version of feudal and post-feudal Boon Days?) is used or asked for.

We were living in something of a fevered state even before COVID overtook us: political instability; work-life balance skewed; worries about aspirations versus income; climate change and our need to fly, to drive, for the cheap T-shirt… “This is the world we built: congratulations.” And while Lockdown has calmed some of that, at a price, even before we count the deaths, the sorrow, there remains uncertainty, financial hardship… and the urge in education and outside it to drive the workforce on: Do more! Do More! Prove yourselves! Even if it’s only to show how much better you are than the old you.

The desert monastics of the C4th have an answer for so much, as Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes so brilliantly explores, and this one is for just such an occasion:

A hunter happened to come by and saw Antony talking in a relaxed way with the brothers, and he was shocked. The hermit wanted to show him how we should sometimes be less austere for the sake of the brothers, and said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.’ He did so, and Antony said, ‘Draw it further’ and he drew it further. He said again, ‘Draw it yet further,’ and he drew it some more. Then the hunter said to him, ‘If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.’ Antony answered, ‘So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the brothers quickly become exhausted. It is sometimes best not to be rigid.’ 

https://erenow.net/common/the-desert-fathers/11.php Benedicta Ward The Desert Fathers

The great inspiration for the move to the desert, Abba Antony meets an outsider: tellingly this is a hunter, someone who has strategy, drive, all the things that make us want to do more. Antony uses the man’s bow as his own example of why the relentless pursuit is unhelpful. Draw the bowstring too far, tighten the tension in life and we risk being unable to accomplish the very things we set out to do.

Cello lessons, Judo Club, Choir, Art Club – and get that mindset improved, kids; a better running time for me, aquazumbaboxercise into another great weekend, the emptily competitive Great British Make Something Brilliant programme, draw up your complex plans for the micromanaged student experience (or risk the vilification of pundits): we have an urge to be better at everything all the time. Time to do that, to be dedicated and wholehearted, is certainly part of the life of all of us, and we have to say an important part of our professional or family life. Even those men and women whose lives were contained by psalms and basket weaving and silence felt that pull: but there are times to stop too. I wonder if sometimes our – my – urge to self-improvement is a sort of running away in itself.

As Williams puts it, the fear is that What you thought mattered – i.e. what you thought was truest to the Real You – turns out to be empty and dishonest... and hitting the Twitter nail on its twitty head in particular Self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to carrying it. In the end we have to stop sometimes, put down those burdens, because we cannot run forever – for something or from something – without exhaustion.

But here’s the rub: sometimes our leisure thing is an escape from other tensions and becomes, in turn another net for us to stumble into. The trick (I’m ditching the “us:” for me) is not letting that activity become a chance to run away from something else, and worse still not to spend my time telling myself how successful I am at it.

And this brings me back to my post from the initial weeks of lockdown, and this story of Abba Macarius:

Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”

One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.

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.

Religio

Perhaps I should simply amend my blog post(s) on Spirituality and Belonging (such as this most recent or this from not-so-long before) but that would confuse the things I was trying to say. This might stand, in grand language, as an autoethnographic codicil to these ideas. The grand language just isn’t necessary, of course: this is just a couple of thoughts and two links.

Link One: I was struck this morning reading Michael Sadgrove’s reflection on his blog on a missed “last sermon,” as he turns seventy around the date of his anniversary of ordination, where his challenge is worded with typical thoughtfulness:

I’m especially thinking of the ‘heart-work’ that begins when we realise that the most basic question we can ever ask ourselves is, what does life expect of us? Or if you like, what does God ask of us? What is the work of God in the world and what is my part in it? How do I go on responding to God and to life before I die, become the best self I am capable of being? It’s a question that, like the Hound of Heaven, pursues us down the years, though we don’t always face it in our busy working lives.

Michael Sadgrove: A Last Post. http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2020/06/a-last-post.html

and then there was this, Link Two. In an extraordinary piece of homiletic poetry, John Farrell preached at Blackfriars this morning, we are invited to see our religion as anchored in history, for we do not belong to an angelic Church where the angels sing their Sanctus; it is made up of people. Here is the link to his full sermon; I can’t do it justice.

Can we see these two as connected?

John Southworth

This where it gets personal. Yesterday was the feast day in Westminster of St John Southworth a priest who risked his life in C17th London on two accounts: by flouting laws that forbade his working as a priest in an England hostile to Roman Catholicism; by working among the sick in a London sick with the plague. And yes, I know he looks like Christopher Lee in this picture.

His metaphorical presence in “my” family was an important factor – my grandma was a Southworth – in determining a number of key choices for me, both religious and secular. This is why I chose the title of this blog post (and for once will reference Wikipedia for an exposition of the term). We all make our choices about where we stand, where we belong; this is not something specific to the kind of signed-on-the-dotted-line which makes membership, conformity and belonging more or less synonyms.

But here I come back to Michael Sadgrove’s questions, relevant, it seems to me, both within a Christian framework and in other ways of looking. The “heart-work” he talks about for older people (like him; like me) is a process of lived reflection, involving being more present to the here and now: family, friendships, the pleasures of nature and art, the cycles of times and seasons, the goodness of ordinary things. He also suggests welcoming the perspectives we gain later in life when when we can look back and recognise patterns and connections that have run through our personal histories. And this is where I would add something in. I would suggest it is a peculiarly Catholic insight, were it not that the writer was Dean of Durham, successor to the Priors and Benedictine community: time to set my RC exceptionalism aside. However, I am reminded – partly by John Farrell‘s sermon – of an important part of Belonging: and that is belonging to a culture and its histories.

Plural histories, or a single interlocking and messy history: over my shoulder are not only heroes like John Southworth, but intolerance, anti-Semitism, Avignon, a Rome that picked up the very marginalised people the Empire had killed and used them for its own ends. It is very true to say – as Michael Sadgrove underlines in his quoting Kierkegaard – that ‘Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards.’ I understand where I am by looking back at all these insofar as I can. And this is where his final point is so relevant as we all wade through the morass of cultural inheritance: a challenge to radical compassion, becoming more attentive to ambiguity, darkness and suffering.

Guiding Principles, Graduating Students

Very much a Brookes Blog this, albeit entirely unofficial, but inspired partly by the surfacing of the annual Cthulhu of Nursery Graduations, something I’ve railed at before. What is graduation about? And this year, what takes its place? I know some places have gone entirely virtual, while others are looking at postponement.

If I had my way I’d be standing in my cap and gown at a lectern reading names. People I know well, or people I have at least taught, and sometimes people I haven’t taught, would file past me, and I would try and balance the tricky bit of reading their names and giving them a little smile before they launch off across the platform to where the Vice-Chancellor would be all smiles and shake hands somewhere in the middle of a platform. I am missing some notable students this year – and I was especially looking forward to the award of a doctorate to my friend and mentor, Dr Julie Fisher. I would inevitably get some names wrong despite the prompt card, and as Reader have no time to play the “Have they ever worn those heels before?” games of spotting ten foot tall women and suited men unused to shoes without trainer grips tottering or tripping along. 55 mins pretty much every time, depending on the guest speaker. 

Ah yes, the guest speaker. A notable, hopefully someone the graduands will recognise and, if not, at least someone who can speak about what graduation means. The ones who find it hardest to win the crowd haven’t really understood the cohort they are addressing and think “education” in the School of Education means teachers or teachers-in-the-making; some of the best warm the audience up with something light hearted and then hit them with something that is so inspirational you wonder why you even tried for three or so years when someone so talented has lifted the spirits of “your” students in 15 minutes. There are speakers who have that gift, and have thought and prepared and picked the right phrase or poem or saying and everyone leaves on a cloud. 

I don’t think this cohort will get this experience, not this year – or maybe not right at the end of all that hard work, at any rate. Up in my little study, I could put my kit on but it wouldn’t be the same. I could make a hash of the names, too – but we would be missing the ceremony. So what does a ceremony do? I’ve asked this question before, and I wonder about the ceremonial that accompanies what is, in effect, a representation of an older set of rituals that are about being allowed to do something after a ceremony that you were not allowed beforehand. Marriages are like that in many cultures, permission to be or join (or start) a family, and graduations similarly reflect the older view that a degree is a license to teach, permission to go out and replicate the educational project of which the student has been the recipient. 

In the post-1992 Universities – and perhaps in all UK Universities except the most ancient – the ceremony itself is not in any way the conferment of that license, even for people training to be teachers, although it echoes it; it is more accurate to be viewed as a ritual representation of a lot of work. Work by administrators (from admissions to room bookings) feeds into work by lecturers (teaching) which feeds into work by students (reading, experience: learning); more work by students (producing assessable work) feeds into work by lecturers (marking), which then translates into the filtration system of exam boards (or committees, or whatever) which are in turn reported to complex administration systems (involving humans and computers). These systems are checked and rechecked and a result is determined, and the student gets their BA, BSc, MA, whatever. If you want a sense of the complexity and the life-changing, hectic nature of this, try reading this paragraph in one breath. 

And then the ceremony. Lots of clapping, lots of little speeches, a queue to meet a University leader for a handshake or other greeting. Pre-ceremony there has been dressing up; post-ceremony there is a bit of a party: photos, meeting relatives. Parallels with weddings are again pretty obvious. 

At Brookes we talk about graduands (people ready to be given a degree) and graduates (people who have been moved up a step by being awarded their qualification), although actually a student “has their degree” when the results are published. What are we saying the student now has?  Graduates are connected to their degree by the learning outcomes of the degree that they have undertaken; they are connected to the University by the way that degree has been dovetailed into the organisation’s aims, visions, hopes and fears. I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about these broader aspirations: they become, if we’re not careful, a way of selling the University more than a way of looking at the time the student has spent with us – and, in this context it is worth remembering that that these aims are a way of thinking not so much about what the students have done so much as what the graduates can now do: not a million miles away from the old license to teach idea. What does the University now think you (graduates) can do?

Brookes has a set of what might be thought of as “family values” by which it couches its Guiding Principles as ideas which “shape the character of our graduates” thus:

Generosity of spirit: the principles say the University has positive working practices…built on the various ways we give time and attention. 

Connectedness: where the heart of staff and student experience is the deep rotts of Brookes history and the city in which it is situated

Confidence: in the ability of the student body. 

Enterprising creativity: time at University should be a sustainable and life-changing route for student participants and support them as they graduate. 

…and so let me just note that this implies that graduates will have been given time and attention, with compassion at the heart of the relationships and confidence in the ability of the student body, to be flexible and creative as they leave their study time at Brookes. And this is where I have a problem.

Things like Student Satisfaction Surveys function like Trip Advisor: Have you had a good time? or Were they nice to you? All very well in their way – some might argue key to how an organisation sees its work and improves. But they also put the onus on the organisation to talk in terms of what it’s doing or done: Were the towels clean? and Was the Reception Area easy to find? Perhaps we could turn this around a bit, not to shift blame or to avoid those things that in a really difficult time need to be looked at with a keen eye, but to look at whether guiding principles have behind them a spirituality that they seek to impart to students. It’s not necessarily a spirituality of transcendence, unless we thing of that as being part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is about connecting and compassion, and by this being able to make sense of our lives. It’s then not enough to think about whether staff were available when students wanted them, or what a University could do better, but what a graduand might do to look at themselves:

Enterprising creativity: Can I think flexibly and in an adult way, using the skills I have practised to make the world better? We are going to need this so badly: economic and political crises, ecological pressures… Am I set to be compliant and get my own job done, or can I see myself as something bigger, something needing my energy?

Confidence: Do I know at least something of my own abilities, and can I build a community around me of people who trust me and whom I can trust? When my confidence fails me, or when society looks unsafe, can I find ways to inspire myself and others?

Connectedness: Is compassion at the heart of my experiences and the decisions I make? Can I see how people different from me are still people with yesterdays and tomorrows to face? Are my choices about me and the here-and-now or do they look around to see wider implications?

Generosity of spirit: How do I give time and attention to people around me? People close to me, people I work with? People in the shops or on the bus? This year above all years do I have an eye for the marginalised, the sick?

If as I said before a graduation ceremony is about belonging – and this year we can’t say we belong in quite the same obvious and physical way – then we might ponder how we belong.

And I might suggest we belong in Brookes by being the embodiment of these principles. It’s not so much about having a license to teach, or any of the other things that we might be empowered do so with our MAs or BAs or wot not – but about how the “family values” are translated in our own lives.

Belonging

A short video piece from DfE about some of the thinking behind more children returning to school and schools working on the arrangements they have put in place – note I am not going to go for the mendacious (or at least woolly) language of “reopening” – is revealing and heartening. Of course, it’s a promotional video, but I rather hope they will keep it up, although I recognise that this link may be superseded and in any case I am looking forward to a time when this kind of advice will no longer be needed. The language of the piece is interesting: lots from staff, parents and children about wellbeing and friendship. There is mention from a parent that she worried she couldn’t teach like the teachers do, and a word from a member of staff about routines, but overall the message is about children’s happiness, children’s friendships.

Joyce Bellous, in a recent and very rich article, calls spirituality – or at least one part of human spirituality – “a human capacity for connection:”

The assumption here is that spiritual work is grounded on our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place.

Joyce Bellous, An inclusive spiritual education

It is therefore part of an educator’s task

to offer children narratives to meet spiritual needs that arise in them naturally. These narratives allow children to live in peace (without anxiety) until they make workable narratives for themselves.

Bellous

I would suggest that her ideal here is worth pondering:

Spiritual work wraps itself around a willingness and ability to name ourselves authentically and situate that identity within a community of people who matter to us – to whom we are committed.

Bellous

Tony Eaude is part of this same line of thought that sees an important part of spirituality as relational:

…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…

Kathleen Harris (whose article on reconceptualising spirituality has been a mainstay of my children’s spirituality theme in the Brookes MA) suggests that school needs to be a

warm, hospitable, environment that fosters caring attachments among the child, teacher and peers, in which all children are accepted, embraced and provided authentic learning experiences.

Kathleen Harris, Children’s spirituality and inclusion

This is not a wooly utopia: she is clear, in the SEND context of her research, that this is a thoughtful and complex inclusivity which draws on major theorists’ views of development and learning and makes the plea that:

…educators must believe that the child can call upon his or her own capabilities, resilience and relationships when facing challenging situations. As this occurs, strengths support children in forming connections to the school environment and community.

Harris

…and this is where we come back to the schools featured in Department for Education’s video of schools widening their intake. Cleaning routines, different start and end times: these are important (and, yes, in some measure contestable – but this is not a blog about those tangles) but one of the parent voices has it clearly:

Oh, my child has loved it – loved seeing her friends again, loved being in the school environment: she’s very happy.

Jennifer

In other words, the message here is about the connection (multiple connections, perhaps) between happiness, wellbeing and belonging. We do not need to focus entirely on these relationships in school, but my gut feeling is that lockdown has accentuated our need for something we do well in educational contexts: provide “lots of interesting things to do and lots of interesting people to do them with.” Drumming; climbing frames; maths lessons.

It is in this day-to-day relational being that we find much of our purpose – and in which children coming back into schools will (if we get it right) find joy. This is the everydayness of compassion that we need. I hesitate to call it practice because that has, for me, the undertone of a self-conscious “doing:” we do mindfulness in schools (I’ve explored this before) rather than just try to be aware; we do belonging rather than belong; we do compassion rather than just try to be kind. The return to school systems and routines should help us simply belong, rather than the fraught attempts of a web-based Zoom, Skype, Meet or whatever: having stuff to do, the smell of the cloakroom, the sound when the ball hits that wall, seeing our friends… God, I know that need, as do lots of people who express this on social media. So it comes down to this: simply being with others who care for you.

Not every school is perfect in this, not every family, or classroom – not every University course, or retail outlet management, either. But we try, and educators have to try with a great deal of thoughtfulness over the next month or so – and I suspect ten times harder if all schools are back to full capacity in September.

To conclude, a final quotation, this time from Richard Holloway, whose Looking in the Distance is a series of essays on the possibility of a search for meaning in a world where the traditions of Christianity no longer hold sway: a very good text indeed for looking at spirituality, the roots (intellectual, linguistic, even musical) of which are so often embedded/entangled in a Christian theology it no longer espouses:.

We could choose to live as though the best meaning and purpose we can find for our own lives is the very meaning and purpose of the universe itself. We could pay the universe a compliment it probably does not deserve by living as though its purpose were love…

Richard Holloway, “Looking” in Looking in the Distance

Some sources:

NB: this blog post is very quotation-heavy because not all the sources (in terms of online journals) are readily available, and hearing the ipsissima verba of these writers seemed more important than me melling on.

Bellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development Exeter: Learning Matters

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/13644360701714936

Harris, K (2015) Children’s spirituality and inclusion: strengthening a child’s spirit with community, resilience and joy. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2015.1086728

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.”

Assorted Immortals

Some interestingly synchronous arrivals today.

I am reading – and enjoying – Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist. Quite apart from his candid dissection of his own mental states in a time of change, and what “nature” (my shorthand) gives him, Dara has a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase. He observes the origami of a bat taking flight; he points out that When you visit a familiar place it’s never stagnant. And so one arrival (I’m cheating here, so as to include this book) is my arrival with Dara and family at their new home in County Down.

We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, 14th August

I was also greeted – halfway through scrubbing the kitchen floor – by two books by Flora McDonnell: her collection of writing on Depression and her Out of a Dark Winter’s Night.

And a recommendation of another book – David Lucas’ The Wonderbird – suggests to me I might look again at spirituality and children’s literature. I will reserve The Wonderbird for another time, but want to think about spirituality in books at least accessible to children and young people.

Dara and his writing demonstrate powerfully and painfully his struggle with identity and mental health. Flora McDonnell likewise depicts her small child wandering in the dark, a moving image, beautifully illustrated, of a self not knowing but never giving up in search of personal integration, of “home.” So while this isn’t a review of Dara McAnulty or of either Flora McDonnell book, I do want to look again at some of the complex relationships about literature and spirituality these books lay open to view.

Of the various definitions of spirituality I’ve explored with students, the ones that talk about wrestling with a sense of meaning are often the ones I stumble over. It works for some – maybe it works for older readers. When you are four, there are questions that will lead up to this, but making sense of your life may not elicit challenges to a set of abstracts, but will very often concern affections, attachments, food, bedtime. An ‘ultimate sense of the meaning of life’ is seriously imperilled when a favourite toy gets lost in town or someone needs to buy a present and feels they cannot. These are everyday occurrences but in a good storyteller are recognised as having tremendous significance in the life of a young person. The line from Bettelheim I cited previously (and I’ll be coming back to Little Pete in a bit) about the all encompassing nature of a child’s emotional landscape needs to be taken into account when thinking of a child’s spirituality – but so, I think, does the complexity of that landscape: it is not a two-dimensional fairy tale, but a rich set of interlocking patterns, something Kathleen Harris likens to a kaleidoscope:

“Just as the images produced by the kaleidoscope are extremely complex, varied, and continuously changing, a young child’s spiritual development is similarly intricate, mysterious, and imaginative in nature and relational, interconnected, and directive to both the self and others within a community of learners that is continuously transforming.”

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 12, No. 3, December 2007, pp. 263–275

This is what makes children’s literature an amazing repository of dilemmas and questions around spirituality – and also a rather hard place to see the fundamental questions. Even defining spirituality is a maze of wordings, ideologies and ideas.

Older readers in the Primary phase – we might return to Gwyn in the Snow Spider – can encounter questions of the transcendent and of belonging frequently enough; what is now termed Young Adult literature has dilemmas in authors from Alan Garner to Patrick Ness. When dealing with spirituality, we have to look at the explicit and implicit ideologies of formal religion, and similarly at thinking that would usually reject those structures; at mental health and wellbeing, compassion: assorted gods* indeed! To simplify (or at least cut short) the argument, this is another of the authors I would present to the MA class on children’s spirituality: Tony Eaude’s definition of spirituality as

“…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…”

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, Exeter: Learning Matters

and it is perhaps with this definition that I can look at Children’s Literature and spirituality. It’s not about “making sense” or “struggle” but about finding a place for personal integration.

This is brilliantly illustrated by Dara McAnulty’s moving home: he does not spare the reader his anxiety or sense of loss, or the careful negotiation of new spaces and new relationships, and so good is he at the description that I am back in the move I found so difficult when I was but thirteen or so (a sort of reference to W J Turner). Of course, as a teenager writing a long text in diary form, what Dara gives us isn’t strictly speaking “children’s literature,” but the vivid self-searching, and the political uncertainties of his (and our) worries about the environment are very pertinent. Here, he and his family are settling into their new life, and watching bats and moths in the garden:

This is us standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and re-lived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering starts calmed a storm in all of is.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, 1st August

Flora McDonnell’s Out of a Dark Winter’s Night is also a tricky book to put in here because the illustrations – bold steps into dramatic landscapes with a child protagonist – might be seen a children’s literature, but then again they might not: is this about dual audience, or the use of one genre (reminiscent of John Burningham) for a different audience? I’m including it here, but I am aware of the complexities of that decision. It stands with Charlie Mackesy‘s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse as having some place in both the world of the illustrated children’s book and being a book dealing with adult themes illustrated in a style accessible to children.

[As an addendum, I might point anyone who is looking at this post towards my good friend Mat Tobin’s detailed and engaging blog post on looking at picturebooks: his post crossed with mine {hence my insertion here} and the illustrations I have used from Flora McDonnell are best understood from his development of theory around “picturebook codes.”]

The links to mental health would be a blog post – or a book or two – in their own right! Images themselves (a bit of a digression here) are revelatory: the wide sea like in Corey’s Rock, the marvellous play of light – and its absence: there is a shock in Flora McDonnell’s book of a dark sky with just a sliver of moon way up on the top left, and the threat of ultimate extinction – the pages were so dark I couldn’t do them justice. In thinking about evening and night it’s interesting to note how sunsets and bat flight seem to be part of a set of positive and calming images – batflight reminding me of that paean to Light in T S Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, 

Moon light and star light, owl and moth light…

T S Eliot https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/choruses-ôç£the-rockôçø

I said it was a digression – but of course beauty has facets that connect with/reflect back nature; spirituality likewise is interpenetrated by natural occurrences. Hopkins says it much better.

While there are books for a young readership that explore beauty and nature, there are books that are specifically “to do with spirituality,” too, of course: I think of Simon James’s anthology Days Like This, which presents beautiful vignettes of a child’s life, or the religious work of Tomie de Paola: there are others that look at Big Questions about love or death: Chabbert’s The Day I Became a Bird or Lunde and Torseter’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. I’ve tried to explore the possibility of existential threat elsewhere, but other questions also arise: Who am I? Why am I like this? Why are things the way they are? At one level, most high quality picture books will ask this kind of question.

I may be creating a circular argument here: high quality texts are in some way “about” spirituality because they ask these questions: the issues of spirituality in texts for children are a marker of high quality. I need to think about this – but certainly subject matter, wording and artwork do contribute to effective communication around the Big Questions. They don’t need step-by-step clarity, still less a glib answer; but they need an affective element, something to draw in the reader, to lead us to an appreciation of beauty, or belonging, or transcendence.

Little Pete‘s succession of good days takes an interesting turn in story 11, Pete and the Sparrow. Chasing a cat that is after a bird, Pete ends up walking on a wall and finds a baby bird.

Pete looked at it. It was a very little bird.

He sat down on the wall, and put his face quite close to it. The bird blinked its bright eyes at him.

Very slowly Pete put out a finger and stroked the little bird on the head. It was soft and warm and knobbly.

Then he put out his finger and did it again, because he had never done such a thing before. Then for a long time he looked right into the bird’s eyes and the bird looked at him.

Then he jumped off the wall and started to walk up the hill again

This quiet, unplanned encounter is a wonder: a wonder to Pete in the story, but also to us as readers: while the story, as ever, has Pete complaining when the bird spotter he meets doesn’t say “please,” central to it is this quiet awe and concern for the baby bird. His reactions are understated – the author, Leila Berg, does do well in not giving us a long explanation: Pete leaves the bird once, and then again when the baby bird is settled, but the chapter ends, tellingly:

Yes, that was a special day.

There is a healing in the ways in which nature impinges on the crises in these narratives. Dara’s world turns a little as the origami of a bat unfolds and flies, and the moths and the stars come out; Flora’s tired, journeying child turns to home. And Pete goes on his way singing.

*The title of this blog post? It’s a laconic quotation from U A Fanthorpe’s poem “Water Everywhere.” In a comic/serious voice she explores the role of water in the modern society:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.

Officially they honour assorted immortals

In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

A mention of water when thinking of spirituality does not come amiss. Maybe this is for another day…

In the branches and among the stones

Sitting in the garden this morning (such is my practice, especially at the moment in these sunny days at the end of Eastertide) I could hear the birds – mostly blackbirds and belligerent robins, I think – in the trees and bushes: all that singing made me think of the great Pentecost sequence we hear (this year at live-streamed Mass: the Dominican melody and a translation are at the end of this blog post) – and that in turn sent me to check the Latin of the psalm in front of me, Psalm 103 or 104 depending on which version you’re using.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys…

The wild asses quench their thirst.

On their banks dwell the birds of heaven:

From the branches they sing their song.

It is a great hymn to the natural world – I think, sometimes, in a more humanistic age, certainly a post-Romantic one we think less about how much “nature poetry” there is in the Bible. Job is magnificent; the Psalms – as well as having all sorts of other issues and emotions – are a wonder.

However, in this case there is an interesting discrepancy between the Vulgate translation of Psalm 103 (104) and the revised psalter and Grail Translation. It comes down to the Vulgate saying that the birds sing “from the middle of the stones” (De medio petrarum dabunt voces) and the 1945 revision of the Psalms having them in the trees “inter ramos.” My Hebrew really isn’t up to going back to the orginal, but with the help of Bible Hub and a dictionary it seems “among the branches” (mibben ‘opayim) is right.

I will develop this as a less overtly theological reflection in a minute, but my first point is this image of the birds in among the rocks, rather than in the lush vegetation of my allotment or beside the flowing waters that so often are the Biblical image of peace and fecundity. That’s because it strikes me as apt and poignant that this Easter we have been singing in among the rocks, like little birds picking at odd seeds in dry stony places.

I don’t think this is simply a Christian image – or if it is, that’s because that imagery is so deep in our psyche that it is inescapable. There is another side to this in that at a very deep human level we crave the lush, damp woodland, and the fertility that it promises, whether an external grace or the lavish generosity of nature:

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

Morning Prayer, Mary Oliver

But this has not been a lush time for many, faced with huge boulders of limitations or tiny pebbles stuck in our shoes. Loudest we have heard (and rightly listened to) narratives of impotent rage in the face of suffering; fierce political rhetoric in the face of duplicity and mismanaged expectations; fear, at the most basic of dying or losing people we love. We have been lucky, here in middle England, to have a hot, sunny spring time to give us joy, but underneath it has been the fear of extinction, of never seeing a dear friend again. When writing to someone recently about the death of our Dean and friend Brian Findlay I used the phrase “losing touch” to someone, and thought what a strange image that is in these non-tactitle days. Then I read Susie Dent on the language of touch, where she acknowledges the double life of these words seems oddly fitting: unbidden, a wish-list of hands I want to hold, people I want to hug flooded in. Stony times of loss and bereavement.

Today, I like the idea that we are little birds picking for seeds in among the stones, so here (for me at least) in this great hymn is one of those seeds. In the Christian context this might be seen as the proper gift of the Holy Spirit: at a very human level and without religious affiliation, this is the gentle breathing of meditation, especially in vv 4, 7 and 8, cooling me when I am het up, comforting, a break in the heat of the day; something that washes, that irrigates. A lush place, cool, private and cleansed beneath the trees (Mary Oliver again). An event or a force (are either of these the right word?) for Compassion.