The First Tree in the Greenwood

Holly

We had a big tree taken down today: the holly that was up against the conservatory and breaking the guttering, knocking and scratching against the roof like a new Green Noah, blocking access to the down pipes – and providing a roost for the ten or so goldfinches that dive around the gardens hereabouts. It was really sad to see it go, to see it reduced from a straggling giant to such a small pile of logs, and to hear the chipper from the tree surgeons crunching up smaller branches for mulch.

The finches and the pigeons will have just a couple more meters to fly to get to our next-door-neightbour’s feeding station; and I am just those few steps further from the pull of the wood-wide web. Now, this isn’t the felling of the Urwald, I know, or even coping with the aftermath of Storms Ciara and Dennis – although I suppose it might be some insurance against Ellen, Francis and their friends – but somehow feels all the worse for that: I have had a tall holly felled because it was in my way. I look again at the collection Arboreal to find Zaffar Kunial describing the laburnum in his back garden as a child and his relationship with the woodland of Moseley Bog (and thence to the Old Forest in Tolkein) and as an adult to Cragg Vale (more Ben Myers Calderdale links), and he notes that “the presence of the old woods wasn’t far away… I don’t feel I’m far off much older beginnings.” Except I do: I now look out at the space where until this morning the holly waved outside my window and feel that I am that much further off: a weed tree, a self-seed pain-in-the-arse tree has gone (or, if you like, the great tree that gave the Green Knight his “holyn bobbe/That is gratest in grene when greves ar bare’), and the greenwood has receded just that little bit further.

Think Human and Think Literature

In among teaching, marking, and research, Mat Tobin has convened a really exciting evening panel conference (with me as whipper-in) and really to advertise this event as part of the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes, I thought I’d post a brief reflection – and if you aren’t already aware of how to book in, or what the details are, this is the link to the details on Eventbrite.childrens literature conference (1)-1

The award-winning panel we will meet at the event – Daniel Hahn, with discussants Catherine Johnson, Beverley Naidoo and S F Said – will of course have their own things to say, and Jon Appleton will reflect on Jan Mark as well, to start us off. I may get a chance to reflect by blog on the issues they raise later. I won’t subvert the discussion by starting it now. Well, not much.

I wanted to take a step back and think – as this blog title puts it – about how Think Human seems to me just has to be something to do with story. Over Christmas Chris Lovegrove followed closely the Twitter conversation about Masefield’s Box of Delights and in his summing up on his blog suggested that there is “fictionalising of autobiographical elements” in Masefield. Do we – or if I’m not going to overgeneralise, do I – do the reverse when I read? Did I need in some sense to become Kay Harker, the orphaned hero, when I first read The Midnight Folk and its sequel with my mum and dad comfortably having a Middle Class cup of tea downstairs? Do I autobiographise (that’s a terrible word; I promise not to use it again) elements of fiction as I read?

In the MA module I participate in, I ask the students to look at a chapter (15, if you’re interested)  of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he writes

Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.

(I must admit one reason for including this chapter in their discussion is MacIntyre’s example of the young man at the bus stop and the duck – but that’s by the way).

In life, MacIntyre suggests

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.

It would seem natural that, if we live this metaphor, we would try to discover patterns in our own narrative by looking at other people’s – fictional or actual. Empathy and even compassion are part of our participation in a story. It is interesting that MacIntyre’s own example includes this identification between storyteller and audience specifically in a drama/story context:

Each of us being a main character in his own drama … In my drama, perhaps,I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince…

I think it is fundamental to the conversation of drama, novel, even the everyday “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today…”  and perhaps it always has been. The hunter returns to the fire and tells us of the kill she or he has made, and we try and empathise ourselves into their account. Or they return and tell us of the deer that leapt past them into the undergrowth and how it lives and we think what it must be like to live like that, the choices it might make (and maybe how we might catch it) – and all of a sudden I am at one with Rob Cowan’s magnificent empathetic account of the deer in Common Ground. 4000 BCE or today.  The act of storytelling may have become more complex over millennia, but has an element of identification between telling and hearing: what one of the characters in Alan Garner’ Boneland pronounces as a ‘True Story,” a story in which we understand something more of ourselves, a story that makes us “think Human.”

But this is just my take: does everybody – writers, translators, readers – see it this way?  One of the main ideas of getting such major voices together was to urge people who come to Boxes of Delight to try and see what links there might be between how writers communicate. Are there common themes on how they approach their task? What is the importance of the values they communicate? Do they write for the child they once were; do they write with a specific audience in mind? 

See you on 11th Feb.?

 

 

Statio

The year’s midnight. 

“Always winter and never Christmas.” C S Lewis’ ultimate baddie, the White Witch, keeps Narnia frozen in a time when the natural cycle of death and birth cannot continue. Will Stanton in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising has his midwinter birthday interrupted, threatened, brought into its rightful place by the crises in the book. Kay Harker’s dream (or not-a-dream) sees the Christmas of Merrie England restored when the dark powers of   sorcery threaten to destroy it. I feel I also have to note en passant the most terrifying version of this for me, Michelle Paver’s adult work Dark Matter, where the narrator faces months of night time and solitude – and something far worse out on the Arctic ice. The time in late December is reenacted in these stories as a time of crisis, and the subtext seems to me to be a worry that as the days darken, the sun will not return, no hope for love “At the next world, that is, at the next spring.” A fear that This is It.

As Catherine Butler in Four British Fantasists suggests of the interplay between magic and humanity in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence

The Light is opposed in turn by the Dark, and most of the activity of the other mythical and historical figures involved in the sequence is related in some way or another to their struggle. Given Cooper’s insistence (as in the description of Herne) on the wildness of some of these figures, this moral alignment of their magical power might be problematic.

Problematic indeed. The complexity of this vision is one of the things that Masefield is beginning to explore, and that Lewis more or less avoids, but which Cooper meets head-on in The Dark is Rising – and in more meditative and lyrical form in a poem she first published in 1974.

The publication of Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day , which re-presents Cooper’s 1970s contribution to a larger work, has prompted renewed interest (it never really goes away) in the interplay between UK fantasy writers and the folklore they draw on. There are some lovely reviews already out (e.g. Kirkus, Brainpickings (who [of course] beat me to the Dillard reference, although that doesn’t often stop me) praising the text and artwork, and this is not a review but some thoughts at a tangent. Again, I am not alone in this tack: Calmgrove’s Christmas Delights (which already sounds like a box of candied fruits) has a wonderful post exploring a selection of writers from Nesbit to Masefield, and then Lewis, and so to Cooper herself. By celebrating Solstice (check out Solstice here)  she sets up not a Pagan in the sense of antiChristian but an unChristian, a preChristian festivity, gloriously underlined by the images Ellis gives us, as wanderers move through a land that they increasingly mark as their own.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us – Listen!!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day…

In Ellis’s paintings we see the “precarious business” as the palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer puts it, of early humanity’s existence in our inhospitable winter, and we see our efforts – the our, I think, underwires the charm and power of this book – at keeping the dangers and demons at bay across the centuries.  It is a similar nostalgia (thank you again, Chris Lovegrove, for this insight into Masefield ) to the gathering of the ancestral (ghostly) Oldknows in Tolly’s first Christmas in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe, that we celebrated on our visit. All those long echoes in the stones of Hemingford Grey.

It sends me back to Ronald Hutton and his Stations of the Sun. In the opening chapters he carefully dissects Christmas customs with judiciously chosen details (I was intrigued by the mummers who menaced people having been “drinking, playing at cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits”) and drops in details that have resonances elsewhere, such as the apotropaic torch rituals in the Staffordshire moorlands town of Stanton.  It has to be remembered that Hutton, although with strong ties to various aspects of Paganism, is suitably cautious in his methodology:  Hutton looks at the Roman feasts of midwinter, Saturnalia and Kalendae, and then states

The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake…

before going on to explain the rise of the Twelve days and the Epiphany/Theophany in the Western and Eastern Churches.

In most of northern and central Europe, where the cold and darkness were much greater…it would have run into local patterns of pre-Christian seasonal celebrations….

But Hutton warns us that

Literary sources do not tell us anything conclusive about the midwinter festival practices of the ancient British Isles…

He find the early English sources more enlightening than many others, and his trail leads him to the conflation (as he suggests) of a Modranicht, or Mother Night, a middum wintra, with the Nativity. The festivities may predate Christian Christmas or draw on earlier practices*… And then he turns his gaze on Yule (jol, jul, juul), the jolly time of Norse festivities.

Stations of the Sun is not a pagan handbook but a scholarly exploration, suggesting that seasonal rituals were fluid, open to change, to diminishing and reinterpretation. It is right, therefore, that in his conclusion some 400 pages and a ring-round year of celebrations later he writes:

It is one of the arguments of this book that the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery and warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth…

[However] What is also plain is that the last couple of centuries, in this as in every other aspect of British life, have produced a completely unprecedented amount of change… No amount of nostalgia or anxiety for a rapidly diminishing or deteriorating natural environment can alter the essential irrelevance which it now possesses for the daily lives and seasonal habits of most of the British; however, this very fact may cause it to play an ever greater part in religious symbolism.

And not only there, I think.  Children’s literature – the work written “for children” and the work written meditating on childhood – seems to me often drawn to these natural cycles, and most of all to the changes of dark and light, for which the stores of story and ritual and symbol stand ready for writers and artists to draw on. I do wonder about the place of folklore and a kind of vision of archaic beliefs in the writings of fantasy – and marvel at the power of this time of year to bring out our need to explore these themes…

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*

Oh, I see you haven’t spelled Station right – and what is that about anyway?

I have, and this is my final point. To return to another of Hutton’s delightful side-comments, he suggests that Yule is connected not only to the world “jolly”  but perhaps to the word we know as wheel;  I can’t help thinking of the Sun Cross, the sign of the Old Ones in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and the ‘ring with the longways cross” the Oak Lady wears in The Box of Delights, but the symbol of the sun as wheeling around might suggest that while we think of Solstice as when the sun stands still, another version might be that it is that tipping point before a wheel starts to turn again. Nature holds its breath, much as St Bernard suggests we all do when the Angel presents Mary with her choice at the Annunciation (Nota Bene: this impassioned, dramatic passage from Bernard is set in Roman Rite breviaries as the non-scriptural reading for 20th December).  The holding of our breath: can we get out of this darkest time? The site Spirituality and Practice has a brief extract on Statio as the sacred pause.  The moment, maybe, before the liturgy starts, where everyone is standing ready, not awkwardly waiting but attentive. Birdwatching for the moment of grace. This is not to say that the Solstice is now simply that for Christian practice or post-Christian jollity – but that the winter Solstice in particular invites us to pause, to listen as the new world turns and does it all again.

 

*Bede is his source here. Hutton is, in case you are wondering, suitably cautious when we get to Easter and its original. 

 

PS:  The photo, by the way, is not an Old Way or my own Old Road outside my front door, but unexpected snow before Christmas a few years ago, taken on the feast of St Lucy, the old “Shortest Day” that John Donne celebrates (and I cited at the start of this post) and the birthday (not the feast) of Bl Lucy of Narnia. Well, sort of.

 

 

 

Story

I love being outside, and from camping and hiking with the Woodcraft Folk on, I’ve loved storytelling outside too. I love warm summer days teaching, and this time earlier in July with Home Start was a joy in so many ways (I mentioned them in the previous two posts). 8325C7B0-0434-46B0-8C8C-F84C42D6F1E4Anna from Home Start has been kind enough to let me reuse the pictures she took, and I’m vain enough to have picked this photo. “You’ve got your gob open,” was the immediate family comment. Yes, I have: it is at once in the same tradition and a long way from all those MSS of the medieval Magister spouting in a lecture.  I was reminded sharply while I was working with their volunteers of the story in Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jill Paton Walsh’s Wordhoard in which the new teacher in the monastery school lets the boys out to read and learn in the orchard.

The perspicacious will also note that I’m not reading a story at this point, but discussing an article, down by my side – specifically Wyver et al (2010) The Ways to Restrict Children’s Freedom to Play: the problem of surplus safety, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Vol 11, no 3 – to explain something about safety and families. I love exploring that article; it is such a judicious mix of research synthesis and plain common sense.  But of course I did it with a story and it’s that pedagogic tool I first want to reflect on.

Teaching isn’t stand-up, I know, but there is always some room for a story in teaching, whether it’s through sharing a book (Anthony Browne this time; maybe Up The Mountain next time?), or a traditional tale told orally (next time I meet Home Start will be the autumn: I think hallowe’en pumpkins may get a look-in), or an anecdote to illustrate a point. This episode in our morning’s training was about giving parents permission – if such a thing is needed – to do a little bit of thinking ahead and then to let the children explore. The group picked up on the phrase surplus safety.  It’s not without risk, and the story I told was of a boy who fell while out of Forest School whose dad said to me “He never has an accident with me; he’s always in his pushchair.” The spin I put on it was that children need to be given opportunities. As Shirley Wyver and team point out:

They [sc children] will make postural adjustments to maximise stability and efficiency….

and they suggest that early protection from falling can limit the problem-solving a child needs to do on unfamiliar terrain. We discussed the section in Wyver’s article where she suggests it’s a mistake to think small children are not good walkers: children need to exercise (and so, often, do we). And walking brings us away from the adult as in charge, the story-teller/performer.

SDB7B4F32-2A3A-4B43-8D47-1D6FD937FACAtory is not all that happens outside. The very experience itself affords the chance to chat, to wander, to find a new way or a new place – and this is the problem with story as outdoor pedagogy: it is still too close to the teacher-as-Master. Again, this was something we discussed, and I confessed how hard I find it not to jump in and explain: this is called n…; that x is brilliant because it smells like…  While there is clearly a place for “the naming of parts,” for the acquisition of agreed names, there must also be time for independent discovery, for the friend who brings you an egg-shell they have found, for the ladybird on the hand, the sound of the wind in the grass, or even, simply – as one of the people I was with pointed out – that not all grass in green. Warneford Meadow lived up to my praise of it: the grasses were purple and tawny-gold.

Doing the Tudors

It was interesting to talk to some teachers about the work I’ve been preparing around traditional tales for Outdoor Classroom Day, and something of a challenge to find a set of stories that linked with “Doing the Tudors” and “Doing the Romans” to then tell the children. Given the school I was working in, the Romans proved easier than I’d thought: with Akeman Street on the doorstep of Combe village, we pondered what Roman life was like off the roads, away from the imposed civilisation of the invaders. Yes, there were wolves.
For the Tudors, I went for a story that had a version known in the time of Elizabeth I: The Three Heads of the Well. I started from this version, and cut and reshaped and simplified. It helped that the school had a real well…and the three heads that provided me with their magic (‘weirded me” as the language of one version goes) through the day were maybe Katharine Briggs, Terry Jones and Alastair Daniel.  Actually there were more: Adrienne Duggan, the ever-at-my shoulder Mat, the inspirational Neil Phillip… and more – see below…

But back to Doing the Tudors, the point of this post. The “Doing” of topics is always an uneasy business, with that sense of finality, of completion, a dusting of hands and a walking away. I fell into this language myself (I don’t  think I noticed the children or staff using it), and was conscious of how it brought with it another meaning: finished but maybe superficially, as in “We did Oxford yesterday; is this Stonehenge?” Layers of detail and meaning lost.  Having just gone back to my first postgrad research in Tudor history through reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell, I was well aware of the complexities of “doing” and “finishing off” the Tudors. I know Year 6 had not been discussing the gaps in extant correspondence in this archive or that, of course, but if I thought my “doing” laid bare a “been there, done that” assumption, I need not have worried.

I had chickened out of telling the story with the death of the Queen at the end of The Three Heads, and softened the part about the King’s bribe to the cobbler to take the horrid step-sister away. Some of this was about brevity and tellability, and some of my choices, I reckoned, were about taste.  The children were not to be fooled, and although they enjoyed the story, I was soon in a discussion about what a “real Tudor” would make of the way it concluded. They wanted – in their words – a (they said “the“) “cruel ending.” Beheadings or divorce would have been in order. They appreciated the cruel (step)sister going off with the cobbler – but didn’t see that there was a bad ending somehow in her having to work for a living. Such is the power of storytelling and literature in the curriculum – but note to self: a Roald Dahl ending with blood and shame would have been truer to the earlier versions and maybe pleased my young audience more. Those children had Done the Tudors well.

Alongside what help I and my tutelary spirits could be for “doing the Tudors” or whatever, there were two other magic presences in this day’s work: Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane, artist and wordsmith of the great The Lost Words, whose work I shared with every group. It was wonderful to read the short acrostic for Ivy, (“the real high flyer… you call me ground-cover; I say sky wire”) and see the Reception class lap it up, and the “top Juniors” appreciate their understanding of an acrostic. Best of all, as the younger children went back to their room, one of them pointed to the ivy on the school wall, and another said “I say sky wire.” That really surpassed all the messages I could hope to give about links between language and literature and environment. We couldn’t have said we’d “done” language and the environment any more than I have “done” the Tudors, but that five year old knew a nature metaphor when he saw it.

Importance and Binary Opposites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

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

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

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

 

More Dragons: St George’s Day

Ignoring the debates about how much the Church has baptized pagan celebrations, part of me wants to ask people to back off the appropriation of Christian festivals for secular ends, from the feast of All Uncomfortable Family Obligations (25th December) to Chocolate Bunny Day (which this year fell earlier this month).    It is perverse of me, I expect, to push the fact that today is celebrated by many/most Western Christian Churches as St George’s Day, the solemnity that remembers the martyrdom of a saint from the Middle East whose cultus spread during the crusades as a sort of military demi-god. The feast has moved because the week (“octave”) after Easter is deemed to be so special it clears the calendar of other celebrations. I shall not comment on the crusader link, and for now I’ll skirt round those other ways in which tales of George and his emblems and cross have supported or excused violence against the enemies of England or Western Christendom.  It is my fervent hope that, as I said earlier this year, those dragons are in the end going to burn themselves out, but today I find myself in some doubt.59610823_10161841658920341_2877297955658792960_n

Just briefly, however, to reflect on whose saint George is. Not in terms of whose patron saint he might be, if that means who he might support in a battle or a football match, or whatever (all of which seem pretty empty to me, although I recognise the power of Shakespeare both at the time of his writing Henry V and of Laurence Olivier’s stirring speech in his film version), but in terms of tradition.   Tradition is  powerful thing, of course, and the St George tradition renews itself through the institutions of English monarchy, flags on church buildings – and more recently by appropriation of a mythic, medieval past by right-wingers that reminds me uncomfortably of Romanita in Mussolini’s celebration of Vergil. Mind you, Vergil’s own plea to a mythic past is also open to exploration…

What are we left with?  Lots of English images of churches, flags, the rolling countryside of the story of a land fit for heroes that has given rise, indirectly, to the powerful love of landscape and nature that might yet save our environment? Shall I wind up the gramophone and start the Vaughan Williams or Holst … and go on a search for a Land of Hope and Glory of 1220, 1420 or 1950 that never really existed?  It is not to be denied that imagery, music, tradition are key to understanding identity, and these myths are important. Above is a nod, in some form, to the traditional iconography in the red(ish) rose in my back garden this morning, out early, out in time for St George’s day (the white Yorkshire rose is hanging back, I note). So when is St George’s Day? Does the tradition of 23rd April stand, and if we get a new national holiday, that will be it? Or is it something for Christians, with our own calendars, celebrating a saint from such uncertain past histories we are unsure who we are celebrating, or for people looking for an identity?  Do Christians cede St George to people in search of a mascot, a symbol of a (xenophobic, possibly violent and unthinking) nationalism? What did I celebrate when I opened my breviary today?

I have to wonder if what I celebrated was not St George, and certainly not Englishness, but a curmudgeon’s hankering after a faith identity that separates itself – or has been separated – from a nationalist identity, and this is born, in part, from the Reformation script that meant Catholics were seen as in some way foreign. Here we are at the us-and-them of identity: we are us because we are not them. Perhaps this is why a combative dragon-slayer fits so well.  Perhaps we are all looking at mythic pasts for identity guides.  Uncomfortable thoughts on a fine spring morning.