Corvid, my Corvid

So I was standing in a large auditorium reading the names of people who were being awarded doctorates. There were more than I expected – in fact more and more seem to appear on the sheaf of papers I was reading from. I dropped the papers, and picked them up in any order. The hall kept getting bigger, I kept seeing more people, and the titles of their theses were, over and over, relevant or interesting to me. I mugged my way through the ceremony, trying to make some sense of the papers in front of me. All those people with doctorates and I couldn’t manage to read their names clearly enough.

And then I woke up, woke up with a sense of failure – and remembered that last night I had agreed to sign my withdrawal form from my own doctoral/MPhil experience. I signed it this morning, and the should’ve, could’ve, might’ve shadows make my tasks today – reading more of Hawkes’ A Land in the Bodleian and setting up teaching for the next semester – seem at first glance empty of significance.

But – like all but one of the psalms – I cannot leave it there. The title of my research still holds good: A critical investigation of themes in the depiction of the outdoors environment in young children’s picture books and one of the things reading and reading and thinking Ludchurch duskand talking about this have brought me is a closer look at landscape and the ways people interact with it. It has brought me all sorts of authors and ideas: Macfarlane, Garner, Gawain, Ludchurch;  it continues to allow me to work with and learn from Mat and Roger, to read with joy and understanding, to think  about the pressing issues of our ecological failures, to take pleasure (as well as feel concern) as I look at the world I walk in.

So here is Mary Oliver (of course) in her poem

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

cropped-img_6934

Spiritual patience, and the ambition of crows.

 

And thank you, Annie, for the raven linocut I’m finishing with. I might want to fly with the wings of eagles, but a keen eyed scavenger with a rude clarion cronk (thanks, Chris!) will do me just fine –

– and is probably just right. 

Emmett and Caleb and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we read this and really believe they could.

 

Underland and Overstory

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

Richard Powers, The Overstory, Neelay Mehta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn but a stone and start a wing

or miss the many-splendoured thing?

IMG_0245

 

_____________

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

The Great Events?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beard, Shorts, Tattoos, Strappy Tops

I grew my first beard aged 19 and was really stupidly proud of it, in a month I spent with some nuns in what these days might be called my “gap year.” The sisters’ reactions were varied: for some it was a real curiosity, having seen men with beards and men without but not a man actually starting one off; for one Dominican sister it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, and she would advise on itchiness, shampoo &c. quite happily. As a woman who had served in the WRNS, she explained, she had “seen plenty of boys [ouch] try out a first beard.”  I shaved it off when I got to University: other students used to ask me things like where the library was and I would tie myself in knots trying not to admit I was as lost as they were. But this was where I learned something about beards: they make you look like you know stuff. The history of beards suggests that they are markers of sagacity, in the west, certainly – but also of scruffiness and a lack of care.  A wobbly history of  disputed masculinities in the West? The attitudes change, of course (this is a great digested read, which points out great beards of the past as well as work-place “clean shave policies;” Margaret Thatcher was apparently deeply opposed to beards); it’s really quite an ephemeral thing.

It is clear that some school managers feel strongly that children have naturally fewer rights around what they wear, how they behave, and that these codes will reflect issues of belonging and compliance to a degree that means non-compliance is bad behaviour. Teachers will likewise dress “appropriately” or “professionally,” and while I would often advise trainees about to enter a placement in a general way, and sometimes have had to discuss dress codes with individual students (never a happy conversation),  dress as a teacher has always been something I’ve found hard to grasp. Early Years men, unless they are in an institution that has a uniform, can be a bit torn.  I was asked to wear a suit when teaching in Reception – but at the other end of the spectrum also not to wear shorts in one nursery. For women, shorts and the dread “strappy tops” seem to constitute some kind of marker in the same way. Shoulders are “inappropriate;” knees too. Jeans? Someone ( a resolute chino wearer) recently suggested I was “bold” to wear jeans in Higher Ed.  Sandals? Is a bow-tie appropriate or comic?  Kilt? Gown?  There seems to be no simple way to manage these routes to appearing like a professional.

Tattoos. The recent fashion for body art has reached employed and employable people in new ways over the last maybe ten or so years and teachers are sometimes asked not to show theirs. The Vox Pops (or should that be Voces Pops?) here in the Guardian give a good idea of the pros and cons from school leaders. I had an ear pierced as a trainee teacher (my first headteacher asked me not to wear a ring in my ear to church on Sundays); I had three ravens (from Thomas Ravenscroft’s song)IMG_0167-2 tattoed on my shoulder a few years ago, in my late fifties. I’m not hiding them; they are where I wanted them – occasionally on show, and something I can see and smile at.  They are there rather than my forehead because I don’t think my forehead would look very nice with a circular tattoo.  But of course this is where the trouble lies: what is “nice,” or “appropriate” or “professional”?  Fashions change, attitudes to fashion change, how fashions mark professions or “class” (or lack of these) change. Maybe, too, the placing and reason for the tattoo matter: a wedding ring finger tattoo is approved of, where a heart and anchor and “Mother” might not be. But an arm tattoo is OK as long as you keep it covered?  What about the educator with a usually covered tattoo who wears a short-sleeved shirt that reveals it? Dress codes are subtler than they first appear, and context is everything.

And so at length to professionalism.  NQTs or about-to-be-NQTs are concerned about this (I remember a poolside conversation on this in Greece [the marvellous Pension George, actually – but is this product placement?] once with three young people just about to start their NQT jobs), and while I can understand the punctuality and dress professionally stuff, of course I can, all I think I’m really saying is that there are ways of expressing authority and professional attitudes that go beyond outward markers.  We might consider what they are.  They probably need to be embedded in teacher training: the outwards signs of professionalism may change (hence the previous paragraphs) but the need to appear a member of a caring and well-educated profession sees to me to be a fixed point.

Planning is a good marker, and all those pedagogic behaviours sort of go without saying, although adjusting to different schools’ ways of and attitudes to planning/record keeping can be a shock for an NQT – or indeed for anyone moving school. The subtler things like how to sound professional face to face and in terms of address are not as hard as they look: a bit of distance but coupled with a warm greeting will top off the ways in which you convey your knowledge. Does it need a tie? Know the children, be clear about what the school has planned, be able to pull out the big words and big ideas when necessary – and be ready to talk plain and simple teaching-and-learning without waffle. This is basic.

But the ground is shifting. Sod the beard. the suit, the tattoo and all that stuff: how many followers have I got?   Social media seduces us – me –  into thinking that professional status is akin to celebrity.

A very thoughtful blog post came my way at the start of the month. Thoughtful, but painful, Twitter’s @MrHill34 is bemoaning how much of the inimical and confrontational material on social media “exhausts the energy needed to develop some meaningful actions/solutions to such issues. We solve nothing this way. All we do is hang our professional dirty linen up to dry within a giant online echo chamber.”  Great image.

It seems to me that we are in a time of such flux that Headteachers can go public with their political views, and when soi-disant leaders on Twitter can use all sorts of wolf-pack strategies and bullying that (one would hope) they would crack down on in the school they teach in (of course some don’t teach in schools, but that’s a distraction).  I would join him in my disquiet about pontificating (knowing I am guilty of it) and the ways in which seniors in the profession  – or at least self-professed leaders – bully, mock and indulge in name-calling without regard for the standards of the profession they aspire to influence. This can’t be the message we give to new teachers: shout as loudly as you can, be abrasive to people you will in all probability never meet, as long as you score the point or look brilliant on Twitter, or get your name in the paper.

There is a sense – and maybe it’s the uncertainty of the times that encourages it – that what we really need is coherence, compliance. Put-up-and-shut-up is part and parcel of the rise of the guru: not listening is endemic in our politicians.  And when we don’t get the compliance we want (I think that emphasis is important), we are entitled (somehow) to mirror the name-calling of our most infamous of current world leaders. We look far worse on social media than we do with a bit of scruff as the beard grows in, or with that tattoo about love that shows when you roll your sleeve up.  What this snarling does, of course, is to make us all look incompetent, losing our way, a squabbling bunch of people arguing about their seats in the lifeboat.   And that’s not professional.

Perhaps we should look at a different model of human interaction here. One that is fashioned around respect as well as passionately held beliefs, one that is founded on a genuine regard for others rather than point-scoring, one where arguments about behaviour are not a reductio ad absurdum, where phonics is not an excuse for ad hominem snapping.  My school is better than your school? My pedagogy is better than yours? Really?  We cannot have a system that is genuinely compassionate (and that can mean high standards for the marginalised just as much as it can an understanding of the out-of-school lives of the disruptive: I’m not making a point here) without this sense of respect for one another as colleagues, a real attempt to see what is at the heart of the educational project for these people who so readily object to others or do them down.

As Sue Cowley has said on Twitter:

I yearn to see more coverage of HTs quietly doing good, inclusive things in their schools without feeling a need to generate headlines or talk negatively about the work of their colleagues…

 

 

Underland Thoughts II

More selections and thoughts arising from them as I revisit Rob Macfarlane’s Underland. Again, quotations will dominate, with the uncomfortable balancing act of celebrating a great work and wanting to preserve its voice, yet not wanting simply to reproduce it. If you have got this far with me and haven’t bought the book, maybe you should. I am tempted to buy another copy and have it interleaved so I can take note after note.

To back track a little. The previous post left the author in a storm by the caves of ancient cave art, where his journey is remembered

…mostly as metals. Silver of the pass. Iron of the bay and its clouds. Rare gold of the sky. Zinc of the storm in its full fury. Bronze and copper of the sea to the south as I escape.   p254*

We are still, in ch 9, in Norway, now looking at the Maelstrom,

the underland of the sea   p291

and the complexities of the economics of oil and fishing. The pace changes, and human characters – never far from the narrative throughout most of Underland – are more important. Human geography – and our need to sanitise our use of resources:

Those industries [extracting oil] understand the market need for alienated labour, hidden infrastructure and the strategic concealment of both the slow violence of environmental degradation and the quick violence of accidents.   p311

I had not heard the term solastalgia, the “distress cause by environmental change,” so this is eye-opening:

the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control… We might consider John Clare a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810s… a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognizable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes unhomely around its inhabitants.   p317

and we walk a shoreline of human detritus.

Nature is no longer only a remote peak shining in the sun or a raptor hunting over birch woods – it is also tidelines thickened with drift plastic, or methane clathrates decomposing over millions of square miles of warming permafrost.   p321

Kulusk now, in Greenland, and the global melt releasing anthrax and revealing hidden military bases.

unweder – unweather  p334

and

uggianaqtuq – to behave strangely  p335

and because this section is about exploration of the underland of Greenland, Rob gives us a meditation on ice:

Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more.

Ice remembers forest fires and rising sea. Ice remembers the chemical composition of the air around the start of the last Ice Age, 110,000 years ago. It remembers  how many days of sunshine fell upon it in a summer 50,000 years ago.  It remembers the temperature in the clouds at a moment of snowfall early in the Holocene… It remembers the smelting boom of the Romans…

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.   p337-8

And then we are off into a glacial landscape where orange lichens and emerald leaves of dwarf willow stand out. The boom of breaking ice, and in the Northern Lights

The mountains shoot jade searchlights into space.     p346

Rob descends into a moulin, a meltwater shaft in a glacier,

a portal giving access to the blue underland of ice.   p369

and witnesses – with a vivid, almost Chthulhu-like horror a short quotation could not reproduce – the upsurge of a massive berg, ice broken from a glacier.

The penultimate section, ch 12, is no less shocking: our exploration of the “tomb” (RMc’s word) or deep storage facility for our nuclear waste:

The tombs that we have constructed to receive these remains are known as geological repositories, and they are the Cloaca Maxima – the Great Sewer – of our species.    p400

They are designed to outlast us, something I find appalling. And even though much of what we create will outlast the individual maker, this is legacy on an altogether different scale.  Death haunts so much of this book – echoing the human pattern of burial to preserve or to conceal – until we meet the challenge:

What legacies will we leave behind, not only for the generations that succeed us, but also for the epochs and species that will come after ours? Are we being good ancestors?     p410

How do we tell these people/these creatures of a time to come not to disturb the toxic giant we are interring?

Oh, Underland has so much more, even in my own reading, IMG_0149to highlight, to praise, to explore, to discuss, but this is a book to read slowly and then to return to. These notes are for me, really, and some of what I see or connect with seems nefas to share here.   As a final non-sharing, I will say that the last, short section, a return home like in The Wild Places, reduced me to tears.

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*Page references are to Macfarlane, R (2019). Underland: a deep time journey. London: Hamish Hamilton.

NB The Guardian has a resource of stuff they have produced around Robert Macfarlane, which includes his own very thoughtful illustrated essay arising out of Underland.

Underland Thoughts I

I’m not sure this isn’t really something for a Wild Spaces Wild Magic research page rather than a couple of blog posts, nor am I entirely sure what I can add to the massive work that is Rob Macfarlane’s Underland,  a moving, detailed, Bible Moralisée C66033DA-9011-4149-85C3-F6FC8F658B52that looks at landscape and souterane and human uses for and vision of the spaces we find or create.

Then don’t.

OK, instead I’m going to put together some of the images and lines that give me most to think about, whether in terms of the brilliance of their wordsmithing or because their message is worth pondering.

That’s not to say loads more isn’t wonderful: just go read it and make your mind up yourself.  I’m not copying the book out or appropriating the ideas: mine is an idiosyncratic selection (a bit of commentary may sometimes set a context), a few lines from a massive work that deserves a good slow read.  I said in my initial review on Goodreads how this could be a scripture for our time; perhaps this is my Lectio Divina.

____________

There is a lot to ponder in the opening pages:

I have often noticed how claustrophobia – much more so than vertigo – retains its disturbing power even when being experienced indirectly as narrative or description. p12*

This is the point at which Rob caught me, by moving from this into Garner’s claustrophobic description of the Alderley tunnels in Weirdstone and then into Gilgamesh.

Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving. p13

then

…to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making an unmaking. p15

The second chapter, Burial, is set in Britain.

We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most. p27

It concerns cave-repository of the dead, but also the tragic death of Neil Moss, an early autumn descent in the Mendips to where

Language is crushed p49

Ch 3 moves to the intense research hidden from the noise of particles in Yorkshire, linked in the book to the network of (nearby and further afield, now ruined) Cistercian Abbeys

in which prayers were offered to a presence disinclined to disclose itself to the usual beseechings p67.

R S Thomas’s voice echoing quite literally de profundis, as Rob moves us past the Komodo Dragon-like mining machinery to a discussion of the term Anthropocene, and how we have reached here. This is one of my favourite passages, and will have to stand for so many:

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the missed 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.  p 79

If someone finds this blog and is wondering what to read at my funeral, that’s the passage.

The wood-wide web, discussed as we explore Epping Forest in Ch 4 is an idea so powerful I am still digesting it. Some beautiful, tender images and amazing ideas. The wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake, and Rob’s own meditation on roots and language where

The real underland of language is not the roots of single words, but rather the soil of grammar and syntax, where habits of speech and therefore also habits of thought settle and interact over long periods of time. p112

And so on to Paris and the catacombs, for me the most terrifying and claustrophobic exploration in the book. The cataphiles and Hell Well. The Salle du Drapeau. London, and in a slate mine in Wales

a carchive, a slewing slope of wrecks p166

cars dumped to save scrappage.

Death is never far away, and we travel past a not-quite deserted Mithraeum to swimming deep in a submerged system, where a tunnel beckons the author:

The pull of the mouth through that eerily clear water was huge. Just as standing on the edge of a tower one feels drawn to fall, so I experienced a powerful longing to swim into the mouth until my air ran beautifully out. p200

Beautifully. The challenge to find beauty is not always about death and danger: Ch 6 ends with a lyrical description of an Adriatic beach at night where a chill current recalls the snow-fed starless rivers Rob has visited; in ch 7 a near-naked Macfarlane negotiates

the snowmelt bite of the water  p232

But the travelogue is not always beautiful, either: there are executions commemorated in Slovenian valleys, and much later there are warnings of the waste storage the  Anthropocene demands…

Even in the most overtly spiritual section, where we travel to visit the cave paintings of Lofoten, we are not far from a curious sense of disaster and mystical experience. He ties together the discoveries of Lascaux with the emergence of the news of the Nazi Death Camps, and on leaving the red-painted dancers Rob has

a strong sense of being watched…

What did I see in the dark? A shadow-play of pasts, events refusing sequence, the fingertip drawing its lines through time far from the well-lit world, there in the unfathomable cave. This was a place that absorbed those visitors who crossed its threshold – as it had me, another in the long history of meaning-seekers and meaning-makers in its shadows.  p284

What happens next is so deep, and it feels to me so important, I can’t write it out: we see Rob in mourning, and the tutelary genius loci is at best an ambiguous figure. That “strong sense of being watched,” the sentient landscape, brings me from the northerly storms to the Peak District, to Thursbitch and Ludchurch, and since this post started with Garner, I thnk it right to end it here.


*page references are to the Hamish Hamilton hardback, London 2019