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.
I find myself really torn by the recent DfE initiative around enriching children’s childhoods. I love the idea of children being outside; I am unhappy when schools are elbowed into making sure children do this, that or the other outside the school day. We are told – and it already seems a bit defensive to highlight this in the web page that launches it – that the initiative is “backed by the Scouts, Girlguiding and National Trust.” This is part of the introduction from the webpage:
The list of activities is intended to support parents and schools in introducing children to a wide variety of experiences and fulfilling activities like flying a kite, learning something new about the local area or putting on a performance.
The list of activities was inspired by the Education Secretary’s visit to St Werburgh’s Primary School, in Bristol, where every child is encouraged to take part in a list of tasks and experiences, with key achievements for each school year to tick off. The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.
And here is the draft passport, downloadable and by and large unobjectionable as a set of things to do. Already some of my impatience at yet another thing for schools to do is partly mitigated: this is to “support parents and schools,” not just to be a tick list for schools, and it is adaptable, so that (to some extent – see below) issues of physical or economic challenge can be got round (I am choosing that awful phrase on purpose). Ah but look carefully at that last sentence.
The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.
It will be for teachers to do this: schools are (yet again) seen as the managers of the deficit home life or at best the recorders and by extension legislators of parental attitudes and activities. The organisation Every Child Should (that title raises my hackles, but let that pass) take the line that “particularly with the demise of universal youth work provision and Surestart” schools are now the “only remaining point of universal access.” In other words because of all the cuts, teachers: work harder! Schools stump up the funds! This is where my – and their – disquiet is worth hearing:
Great to introduce a bucket list for 11 year old but is this just another thing for schools to be held to account for? Austerity. Little extras. And yep – these are all significant issues and to pretend a passport can fix these challenges is at best foolish and at worse insulting.
While they then do suggest a passport is an effective model, they do so with a set of very worthwhile pro viso warnings about affordability, inclusivity and partnership. Let me propose a couple of scenarios here to illustrate where the passport model might not be a good way forward:
In case one mum is a teacher and dad is an office worker. They have two primary age children. Hard working (remember the “hard-working families” guff from a few years back?) but if they feel to some extent time poor they are not at a critical point. They build snowpeople [sic] when they can, read books, play on IPads, go camping.
In case two, again a “hard-working family” with two primary age children, and with dad on nights, mum works in a local supermarket: they box-and-cox childcare as best they can. This is much more like real time poverty, but there is still time for a kick-about in the park, and swimming club on Wednesdays, most weeks: and sometimes a bit of belt-tightenng to afford it.
Family one are already doing this stuff, and the school are being asked to do what? Manage these things? Supervise them? Require parents to record them? I recall the Oxford Reading Spree conversation about teachers keeping children in to “do reading” if the Home-School Reading Record was not showing reading at home: are we now looking at compulsory After-School Guiding if the record is not kept up to date? Family two likewise might be able to take on suggestions about starry nights or planning a meal, but really do not need school breathing down their necks any more: there is already enough pressure around finding the approved shoes for school, doing the increasingly involved homework (“make an Egyptian irrigation system”), find the money for trips… My point here really is to ask what does this passport have to do with them?
When the NCB endorses the passport their Chief Executive writes
We welcome this effort to immerse children and young people in activities that can build their confidence, develop their curiosity and support their growth beyond academic attainment…
But none of the endorsements seem to see the relevance of this element of control on the lives of these families. Let’s face it: as proposed by the National Trust (whose suggestions for “Things to do” form the basis of the Passport) these activities are interesting, free from immediate curriculum constraints (until we get to writing about it in class: note the SoS for Education seeing the “relevance to the curriculum”), and might encourage a bit more engagement with world beyond the immediate, technology dominated life of today. They are a bit culturally biased, a bit lacking in context, a bit wistful for a childhood past (I love the adventure into Ladybird Land with “post a letter” – although “play in the garden while Daddy reads the paper” was strangely absent), but we are reminded this is adaptable. The parasites are already creating forms for you to use. When Action for Children suggest more face-to-face time in their Build Sound Minds campaign (and God knows we need to think about families’ mental health), I worry the resource creators are already licking their lips at some kind of target-driven initiative that makes quality parent-child time into a Couch to FiveK plan. Yes, that’ll work, I’m sure.
And now let me suggest case three: mum is full-time at home, not out of choice but because the needs of their child suggest she may be called upon when these additional needs are felt to be beyond the capabilities of the school; the out-of-school activities they need, as she once explained to me, to include “our own parking place at the local hospital.” This passport better be adaptable – and not just in terms of “work arounds” for this family, but in ways that are genuinely inclusive. Or is this child’s teacher actually going to have to say “We’ll let you off the tree climbing, of course…”
It would be easy to go along a scale in terms of severity of need and still not stray from families I have worked with: the child looked after all week by Granny; a family for whom the mother being outside the home was culturally a challenge (a challenge they were meeting); the single parent for whom a lie-in felt like a necessity and who didn’t know how to cook (one of the TAs taught her to save money by mashing potatoes rather than buy microwavable stuff)… and we aren’t yet in the serious crisis cases.
I am all in favour of schools – and families – going beyond academic attainment. I spent a large amount of time on my two modules on Outdoor Learning last semester talking about how the curriculum is much more than a syllabus; learning is more than being filled with facts… We sat outside in the autumn sun; we lit a fire, found a badger sett… And out of work – well, after work, and along the road from the Harcourt Hill campus, at least – I have sat in a local copse with a couple of mates and a beer… And this is all without mentioning my passion for exploring children’s literature and how it can represent the magic of being outdoors.
I am not (as Margaret Hodge once described me and some colleagues when we asked for developmental elements in the Foundation Stage documents) a “joyless do-gooder” who wants to deprive working class children of the opportunities I gave my own children. But I am not convinced – yet – of the passport as proposed from on high as not just another bit of target creep: codification and a plea for schools to work harder.
In the end, I guess, my rant comes down to one thing:
How joyless to see the stars at night so you can tick them off!
…the delight of solitarinesse? I am not sure this is always the case. Dowland’s song is lovely, and does all those Elizabethan/Jacobean things about how countryside allows escape – from court, from love, from mess. The re-read of this play (I’ve sprinkled some allusions throughout this post) has given me much to think about tonight. However, just as the Duke in As You Like It retreats to the Forest of Arden not alone but with his company, the social aspect of the pictures below cannot be denied. Hey nonny no.
Maria Popova’s Brainpickings Blog is a mine of beautiful sources for all sorts of things. Here, she excerpts some of the writings of Hermann Hesse on trees, which sparked some thoughts on Twitter and in me. What makes a place special? Is it simply memory? Here I want to post some pictures and some brief explanations with really no thought but to explore some of the sites that have meant something to me over the past two or so years. So this is really just a resource for further reflection, taking account of space, memory and relationship. They aren’t in chronological order, or really in order of importance, except that the last is the most recent.
I’ll start at Wittenham Clumps, where I learned the value of Forest School back in 2000. This is a later picture, of course, with two grandchildren making dens. I’ll come back to Forest School, that almost incidental thing that was therapy for me after Theo died and then went on the inform my educational world view. Making dens in the Wittenham Woods, watching physical skills and inventiveness and imagination come together is still a great joy.
But the next has to be the first dawn looking to Ludchurch from Gradbach. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Wild Spaces Wild Magic defines so much of my work-thinking over the past two years: that it has such personal significance is down to the “geological pantocrator,” the pareidolic Green Knight (here in the initial project outline), and to the quiet glory of this dawn – and (back to the humans) to the team. It was mat who showed me that face, and if I have lost my heart to the project it is in part because of that experience, and then this glorious autumn morning, and also to the variety of gifts of the team – Debbie, Jane, Roger, Mat:They make me think and feel and create (and fail and pick myself up) but it is this half an hour at dawn in a solitary wooded valley that was a moment of transcendence with
…tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
To create a methodological framework for this, I suppose I am looking for a visual approach to autoethnographic study – but in reality, I am not there yet. Where I am, or where I was the other week at any rate, was seeing woods not as a place of solitary contemplation as in my previous post, but as a place of meeting. A place of shelter, companionship, release, exploration: Who Will Go Walk? Here then, to end, is a series of photos: Nettlebed, a place of glory in bluebell time, where in Rob Macfarlane’s words “Each step in taken in an ocean” and where in autumn Maggie and I have walked the red-gold of beech leaves. I could wish this were the site of Cooper’s fantasy sequence, so powerful it is, so amazing the visits I make with Maggie.
And then there’s Wychwood, the “strange caper” where I broke my finger trying to keep up with Jon. The memory stays, brings a smile. The finger is still wonky. Maybe the woods, like Arden, like a monastery, like life’s different contexts, are places we are accompanied by our follies? Maybe I needed to learn I am more “Full of wise saws, and modern instances,” a bit like this blog, than a nimble Orlando under a greenwood tree.
I cannot omit the 2016 autumn trip with Mat on the first, splendid visit to Alderley Edge. Here he is photographing away in the woods on our weekend in Garner Country. I’m not sure we found anything of real insight at Alderley that tentative first morning – but it does deserve another trip, maybe on its own. The Edge was maybe eclipsed for me by the later activities of the weekend, notable, of course, the meeting with the Green Knight, whose photos are all over this blog, and in whose magic wood on our last trip I felt both lost and found.
Nearly there. Three more shots: my local nature reserve, the Lye Valley where the ways the woods open out into fen are like a curtain drawing back… again the grandchildren, or two of them: watching them teaches me more than reading about outdoor learning. ..
…and the domestic woods at Harcourt where much of my Outdoor Learning practical work takes place… and yes, I did smoor that little fire. What started as what I think of (unkindly) as my hobby module has become a major part of my understanding of my role.
And finally to say nothing much but to bring the blog post to a finish, here are Chris and Jon and me. Woods and friendship again. Solitary they can be, as in the previous blog I cited – but they are also places of meeting. Another form of therapy?
I’m reading three books connected with trees and well-being at once at the moment: at Mat’s suggestion, Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock; Max Adams’ The Wisdom of Trees and partly at Jon’s prompting Paul Gilbert’s Overcoming Depression. In the first, the Antiqua Silva asserts itself over a troubled house; in the second, there is appreciation of beauty, of effect, of the impact of the tree in Western culture; in the third I am exhorted to find/create an image of a safe space. Might I imagine a wood, full of green light? Woodland as therapeutic space: this blog returns to it again.
It appears that dasotherapy is not the neologism I’d thought: it occurs in a spa in Belarus. That’s not quite the use I’d hoped for, though, either. as I think about the Trees and Wellbeing conference that (almost) served as punctuation to an emotional rollercoaster of a fortnight – or month, or two months…
So when today I had some news I needed to turn over I’m my head, I went for a walk. A bit of time in the quiet green. Dasotherapy. Still not sure of the word.
I am immensely lucky I have the beautiful grounds of Harcourt campus as part of my work place. A muntjac was browsing, two magpies fighting or mating – bickering, whatever – in the canopy of weedy ash and sycamore. It is not the canopy of Chiltern beechwood but in its way is beautiful. It may not be grand, but it is full of life and growth. I think of Roger Deakin’s accounts of walnuts in Ortok and ash in Suffolk; of Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside and the marginalia of landscapes; and then of his Nature Cure. Mabey speculates here at his lyrical best, describing his fens (but in truth praising any ecosystem):
…there is a general movement towards the development of woodland…but against this there is a corresponding, intrinsic drive towards variety, flexibility, subtle forms of symbiosis and partnership.
I feel like here I almost catch up with him. There seem to me to be all sorts of reactions to woods- places of awe, of menace, of folklore or inspiration to “high” culture, or an impetus to preserve, or to admire the invasive… but today in this scrubby green sanctuary, the volatility of woodland strikes me: young woodland, with trees competing for sunlight. Today I don’t need the ancient menace of Mythago to tell me how movable a wood is, or Ward’s Ancient Oak in Max Adams to tell me how we grow old, how life is unstable and mutable. We operate on different timescales, but we too are seedlings, race for the light, and overreach ourselves and fade. Talis vita hominum- today, not to do with sparrows.
I’m reading for the umpteenth time a really good book on outdoors, the Kaplans‘ The Experience of Nature. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan make some really important points in their book. It maybe didn’t have quite the impact in UK (although such themes are recurring: see here, for example, from Bowler et al., 2010) as it would have had if it had been published, say, ten years later, and needs outdoor people to come back to again and again. I think that many of the ideas they come up with are assimilated by other, later writers or that others come to similar conclusions. Reading Chapter 6 on Restorative Environments was, when I read it for the first time, a bit like coming home.
The argument – by Ch 6 – is around what they term “mental fatigue” and the potential restorative role for the outdoors, although they admit this does not explain at this point what is being worn down. They come to the conclusion it is a facility with focus, and refine their idea as “Directed Attention Fatigue” in which basic tasks cannot be competently completed: we have less capacity for detailed attention, leading to basic errors, less sensitivity to social cues, less ability to persist. The next section is key:
The struggle to pay attention in cluttered and confusing environments turns out to be central to what is experienced as mental fatigue….One way to achieve this is through sleep… Sleep however has limitations as a way to achieve recovery. Ideally one would provide rest for directed attention during one’s waking hours as well. Achieving this requires environments and tasks that make minimal demands on directed attention.
Ingeniously they then propose ways of “getting away” which in turn are seen as insufficient, until the writers synthesise their arguments and come to their key notions:
(Action and) Compatibility
It is these four aspects I want to explore really quite briefly and from a set of personal experiences rather than anything remotely challenging the deep understandings that the Kaplans bring out in their book.
When in 2009 I called my (?ecocritical) study of Sendak, Butterworth and Childs ‘Escape into the outdoors?’ (in Deep Into Nature, linked here) I talked about the unwary getting into trouble “out there.” I was thinking about the ways in which children’s literature encourages a mental escape, but that the space brings challenge. Ida and Max for Maurice Sendak, Charlie and Lola for Lauren Childs, Nick Butterworth’s Percy the Park Keeper all help the reader see beyond the page, behind the bedroom or wherever – even beyond reading in a garden on a sunny afternoon. Mini Grey has some lovely insights here, especially where she states that “books are windows and doors into experiencing being someone else.” Windows and doors to outside. It is not always a nice place (for Ida in Outside Over There it is a “mental and emotional landscape of sibling jealousy and childhood anxiety”) but it is an “away” that brings a different way of being. However, the personal experience of the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project and the simple delight of an afternoon walk in Wychwood Forest suggest to me that the embodied mind needs an embodied escape, an experience of release from the everyday being enhanced by perception of beauty. As the Kaplans propose, reviewing the work of Fly (1986),
…”experiencing nature” or “enjoying the natural surroundings’ received the strongest endorsement…. environments that foster a sense of safety and competence, where a quick assessment leads to the judgement that one could readily make one’s way and could explore without great risk were the more preferred.
What I am therefore to make of my fall from the rope swing (not pictured here but much enjoyed by my students on Twitter)? I suggest it’s complex: on one hand a simple misjudgment of my own capability and a need to belong or impress; on the other, the safety – the lack of great risk – is social/emotional: falling with a friend around to laugh rather than mock is a lesser risk than the fall itself. A pratfall: the humour is in the tumble; the affection is in the humour.
Would I have attempted that swing on my own? Where might the stranger walk? What part does confidence play? Ludchurch on my own was a greater challenge than with Mat and Roger and Jane and Debbie. Maybe the social stuff (see below) is important to me, and “embodied” implies “relational.” Maybe the Kaplans’ notion that social cues are dulled by certain contexts can be turned on its head and that the social aspects of “nature” should be considered. Maybe we need to create spaces for us to be away, or be away with people, to heal, or to sustain our wellbeing.
The view out to the North West from Wychwood Forest in April ’18 (the first shot) was wonderful, the view (here) down the valley from Thoon with Mat in November ’17 was tremendous, enlightening; there may be significance in the fact that they both had far-away horizons. Both encompassed
the imagined as well as the seen…a promise of continuation of the world beyond what is immediately perceived,
It might be possible to see extent as having a powerful pull on the role of landscape in literature, maybe drawing on Romantic notions of Nature – but we would have to admit the claustrophobia of Garner’s valleys somehow: extent might immediately be about vistas, but in play and literature it is also about possible worlds. The Kaplans’ “whole other world” might in fact be literature based entirely: would that negate their argument, or subvert it by suggesting that reading was an effective escape into the outdoors?
A fascinating stimulus is one that calls forth involuntary attention.
This suggests to me that part of the fascination might be that is it in part spontaneous. That is not to say that some of it isn’t contrived or predicted: sunrises are unpredictable because of the weather, but they always happen; Forest School might always be Thursdays but what happens when you find that weird log to balance on? The tension around how much “nature,” in England at least, is landscape, shaped land, means that the fascination we feel is always to some extent contrived: Mat at Alderley Edge is photographing in an area made wild by the Garner family in previous generations, partly to entertain the local landowners and the visitors from Manchester. He is taking pictures of a lovely, autumnal wood, he is fascinated by the potential to Alan Garner and Garner’s readers, but it is in a contrived space.
[Humans] are fascinated by attempting to recognise in instances where recognition is difficult but not impossible.
They are explicit in citing here
scenes high in mystery.
Alderley Edge’s shaped land is just that; Garner’s writings (quite apart from the stories he draws on) are enough to give it that mystery, so in coming to an end of a too-brief discussion of fascination, I come to awe and wonder, and hence into the Kaplan’s final category.
I am back feeling whole and dreaming in Ludcruck.
Action and Compatibility
…The natural environment is particularly interesting…in that it communicates a sense of reality…[R]ather than leading to control the wilderness experience leads to a sense of awe and wonder and at the same time relatedness.
Relatedness is interesting if problematic. “The only place you could be a hermit was in the centre of the stage on the Albert Hall,” as someone once told me. I know that the Kaplans are viewing this relatedness as being to “nature,” and Belden Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints sees this connectedness as being as a solitary affair. However, in choosing the photos for this post I do note how much of my experience of the outdoors is social. There are writers who would see spirituality as having a keen social element, so that the discovery of values and transcendence is, as Ping Ho Wong puts it in the article A conceptual investigation into the possibility of spiritual education, also seen as arising from within a culture. I wonder whether this social aspect needs exploring further? Not only because without Mat I would never have explored the Wild Spaces of Garner Country, and without Jon would not have found the rope swing, but that without Maggie I would not have had someone to sit with in what Rob Macfarlane calls the “blue so deep, sea-deep” shimmer of bluebells above Nettlebed and caught their subtle, Endymion smell.
“The trouble is, Nick, you don’t know who you are.”
It’s true. This Lent I have been occupied by a phrase from the letter of St James: purify [your] hearts, dipsychoi, people with divided souls. Like some kind of fidget toy, I’ve twisted it this way and that, coming back again and again to wondering about honesty, authenticity and truth. The headline challenge from a friend this week came with greater force than the discussion in Confession the weekend before. Three or four, or even more voices and choices have been raised in me and around me, and the nail is hit home with that phrase: “you don’t know who you are.”Dipsychos, a person with a divided soul, and it is friendships, two revelatory friendships in particular, that have shone a light on that division. This post isn’t about them, really, but is trying to make some sense of this “unknowing” model in terms of my work and my research.
It would be lovely to talk about how being outside clears my head, about “the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys,” but is it just about walking?
When Rob Macfarlane writes, it’s not just about walking; in today’s looking at my relationship with Garner’s Thoon and Ludchurch it seems hardly to be about walking for me at all, but a sort of pilgrimage (that overstates it) towards a personal integration. When I have written about “being real” before it has been about creating a relationship with place through story; this post, this week’s thinking is about me making sense of me through people, through place, through story but as I attempt it…
…I am back to Ludchurch and the disquiet I felt when I met that dark place, the darkening wood and the disempowerment of the Green Knight in the dusk. Maybe what I turned from there, the thing that chased me from Thursbitch for weeks after our first visit, was a shapeless Big Thing made of what I couldn’t see: an anxiety that I cannot find a self under all the guises I carry. One of the coats I wear is about the research, the language and literature reading and thinking and walking I have been involved in, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. I come back to it again today in something of the spirit of Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, where he suggests that walking can be “like gazing into a crystal ball.” Walking, maybe, and reflecting on that walking – but he also warns that “the imagining and mythologising of nature is an ambivalent process.” So while pressure of work and demands of family mean not much one-foot-in-front-of-another walking has been going on, there has been a lot of (very ambivalent) crystal ball scrying: it has been a week where time and again, sitting in my office or in my meditation or as I drift off to sleep I have walked from the Gradbach hostel up to the Green Chapel, and as I reflect on this I keep coming back to the blog post and the John Fuller poem I cite often, where in the one I claim I am my own Gawain and in the other Caliban concludes, angrily:
… I think it is not good
To be unhappy with your freedom or
My language (learnt, but nothing understood),
Lost like my name within the magic wood.
This Good Friday evening, the first night of Passover, let me add some more thoughts.
Perhaps it is the rhythm of spring and Liturgy in both Christian and Jewish traditions have been (in part) agents of bringing me to a point where I have to acknowledge, as Rob Macfarlane describes it in The Old Ways, “the co-present ghosts of the former and the future.” The ghosts of past relationships and the uncertainty of present ones; the ghosts of past half-finished research so beautifully topped by more able medievalists at home and elsewhere; the hopes and fears of all the years. Maybe “imagining and mythologising [of anything] is an ambivalent process” – solvitur ambulando, but I feel like I am on a fatigue run, carrying so much. It feels like time to stop running: to change the metaphor, it feels like time to look to the ordering of my life, to make sense of the bits I am carrying, like a hiker rummaging in a disordered rucksack, or a mosaicist faced with the task of creating a picture from random tesserae.
The poet who “got me through” the bleak and beautiful four years of studying and working in Durham, Anne Stevenson, challenges the reader at Easter with the lines
What god will arise and slouch
through this realm of rubbish?
And I think the place I am at the moment is just what she describes in NorthEaster: a realm of rubbish with real flashes of beauty. That is to say that I am unconvinced by the Olympic myth of “anyone can be what they want to be,” but I am in sympathy with Auden (in lines again I have come to this Lent):
Instruct is in the civil art
of making from the muddled heart
a desert and a city where
the thoughts that have to labour there
may find locality and peace
and pent-up feelings their release…
Let Fuller and Anne Stevenson end this. She complains in her poem A Sepia Garden of creating identity as
the daily irritation,
the cramped frustration of attempting
the jigsaw with pieces missing
and my plaintive joining Caliban in saying
…I framed what syllables I could
because we all create who we are with what we have. The trouble is I’m not sure what the picture I’m creating should look like.
It is interesting to speculate on the role of a complex author such as Alan Garner and whether he can be counted a “green writer” – or whether that kind of nomenclature is at all useful. He is not writing the polemic of George Monbiot, whose lyrical, engaged prose in work like his Feral has an explicit moral tone. In critiquing (p215) a Wildlife Trust’s management plan, for example, Monbiot writes
“…invasive and undesirable species are native trees such as rowan, sallow, birch and hawthorn, returning to their natural habitat… [A]t great expense, it sustains the ambiance of a nuclear winter.”
Powerful advocacy. We might, however, contrast Garner’s use of trees at the moving death of the eighteenth-century protagonist in the final scene at the end of Thursbitch:
“If I’m to rest tonight in this flowery valley, tell them to put me in my own fold, so as I’m close to you. Then, tell them, put at me head a pipe of hornbeam, for sweetness, a pipe of holly, for sadness; a pipe of oak, for wildness. Then when the wind blows it must play.”
They are writing for different purposes, of course. Monbiot, to state the baldest argument, has a concern for place and the future, while Garner’s project is place and the past. Jack Turner seeks a resting place and finds it at the intersection of myth, legend and a mystical experience of the powers that shape his cultic space. The end of Boneland offers a similar set of images, of story at the heart of land and belonging. The modern protagonist Colin walks free of his nightmares (to some extent) and the Paleolisthic Man rests, his story passed on. Garner is even bold enough to cite the rhythmic refrain from the local story of the sleeping knights as the past and present protagonists become one, walking
…by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole
where he (who? Colin, the Man?) see “a new story, a Dream.” Where – or more precisely when – are we in these last, beautiful rags of prose in the book? Whenever we are, we are [at] the heart of the human story, with sacred cutting of stone and Jodrell Bank. There is no simple catechism of how we might be kind to the earth, but we are at the heart of how and where we belong. This is where Garner’s “greenness” resides, where his inspiration rises like a spring on a hillside.
Lyotard (I am not an expert) suggests that the Oikeion, the “belonging to the dwelling place,” is “a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds, souls or psychic apparatuses” (in the brief but incredibly dense section “Ecology as Discourse of the Secluded” in The Green Studies Reader, ed Laurence Coupe, p135). While I can see that Lyotard is going in a very different direction in looking at the oikeion as a motivating relationship in literature, it strikes me that this brief quotation might be a way of looking at Garner as an ecological writer. That it not to say that we should choose a title like “Green Writer” and shoehorn someone we admire into a role we choose for them, but that it points to exactly the deeper relationship with the world, the deep ecology that we see in Thursbitch and Boneland. Time is a crucial part of this.
When Sal, the modern-day protagonist in Thursbitch, surveys the ruined farm at Thursbitch, she says plainly “The stones belong but the house doesn’t. What’s here is much older.” The house is a ruin, much as Sal is, and affects her so deeply that even in the challenges of her deteriorating condition, it remains powerfully in her memory. In the same way the Man, the pre-Sapiens hominin, tells the first story of his “dream in Ludcruck” in Boneland and thus passes to modern humans, to the early Cheshire people, his story,and gifts for the future his song
To dance in Ludcruck to cut the rock and to keep the sun from death.
Story (song, dream) help us pass out of a linear view of place into something else, something that loosely is called Heritage (however that term is used and abused by the tourist industry these days).
Garner is concerned with belonging in time and space, and the non-linear peculiarities of his stories only serve to point out how difficult it is to come to terms with. Place is powerful not only because of our use (or abuse) of it, but because of our intimate relationship with it, inextricably linked to our experience of time. Nails grow at the same rate as tectonic plates shift. Sal sees Jack Turner and he sees her. Is she Sal at the end, or Jack’s wife Nan? Characters and objects move through spaces and time in a very fluid way: myths represent themselves in the Owl Service, historical episodes and artefacts merge and confuse in Red Shift, in the earlier works Weirdstone and Gomrath, Garner plays with story and legend and language in ways that even the powerful adult third episode in the trilogy, Boneland, only half resolve. He is acutely aware of how inhabiting a landscape places the writer – maybe the reader – in a place but not necessarily in time. As he ends his meditation on the alder copse in Arboreal, “the dead men in the ground had worked the same land.”