Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive , tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

A Familiar Outdoors

Tulip, from Benjamin and Tulip

Sorry: this is a long post written over quite a few days. I hope it still holds together. We’ll start with a very odd but charming landscape drawing from Rosemary Wells. Detail is reduced and reduced: character becomes a threatening little tail from a barebones sketch of a tree. We will come to know this tree, and the owner of the tail, as the eponymous Benjamin and Tulip‘s relationship develops, but for now it is a tree: it is a stage set for a conflict, nothing more.

When Peter Feinnes raises the question if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? (I cited him here but felt as I wrote that piece there was more to say) I wondered – right back to my first thinkings of a research project that didn’t make it to PhD – about depicting familiar landscapes. Here are two to explore: on the left a building identified as “Playschool” in Sarah Garland‘s 1990 book “Going to Playschool” and on the right, a wood in “The Wild Woods” by Simon James.

“Playschool” is different from the woods for me in that the building and its environs are South and West Oxford: the tower behind the school building is the Seacourt Tower in Botley, whereas the woods are everywhere-woods, at least everywhere in England. Does the fact that I recognise how Sarah Garland uses places I recognise alter my reading of the book? Yes it does, and although I can see how she has used locations imaginatively here and in her books about Polly to tell a good story (shortening roads, reworking shop locations) the connection with Oxford that our family felt reading her books when we had left for Durham was an important part of our decision to come back. That map of South Oxford in Henry and Fowler had a real effect in that it was instrumental in our deciding to move back. But this is only (only?) personal: does this pull of recognition have to be there?

I suggest it doesn’t need to be exact; otherwise Polly’s Puffin and the rest would have a limited audience, and Simon James’ grandad would be doomed to walk the woods unnoticed. What they need is a location that can be recognised enough for the reader to sympathise: for example the “playgroup” (I keep the inverted commas because the actual school is a fully-fledged, free-standing Nursery School) just needs to look like somewher readers (adult and child) can sense some familiarity with – as the Head Teacher of that very Nursery once said of a good Early Years setting “lots of interesting things to do and lots of people to do them with.” Woods, likewise, when not places of fantasy and peril, are a mixture of trees and streams and wildlife, and I have written lots on these: they are a unit of understanding in exploring nature in UK, changing from environment to environment, set up, fought for, mourned, looked after, neglected…. but woods are recognisable, a meme, to use Dawkins’ idea, a topos if we follow Jane Carroll’s framework (worked out via Cooper, Garner et al in her book and discussed in part by me here, but see her staff page for an extensive list of writings) – and in Simon James’ everywood, where grandad and granddaughter explore, get wet, meet a squirrel in a place that, if not every child’s common experience, are at least, well, part of their cultural landscape. That itself begs all sorts of questions about cultural capital and landscape, into which this is a first tentative step.

The universal wood of Simon James – and the tree that starts off this blog post, the hiding place of Rosemary Wells‘ disruptive raccoon Tulip – are places the reader can see and say “Yes, I know that place.” Not so, when an illustration seeks to depict a landscape that may be unfamiliar to the reader, and this is worth a brief digression. The lovely Handa from Eileen Browne’s Kenya is at the heart of a number of stories, and still well appreciated, still “going strong,” but not without difficulties: especially where that familiar is a false familiarity, we are in real danger of stereotypes.

There is a tricky line for authors and illustrators – and their readers – to tread in making the places in stories stand for universals. Handa cannot stand for every African – I think the link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the danger of a single story is pertinent here. Just in the same way as she found she did not need to see rural Nigerians as without creativity, to see them as simply “poor,” Browne has a difficult task here in showing a girl in rural Kenya as resourceful, generous, but choosing a very traditional rural setting – it was my own third visit to Africa that showed me round houses like these (at any rate, ones that were not built for tourists). “We all know” too readily what Africa is like: it is Kenya, and in Kenya it is a rural Kenya. In setting a story in a place the reader will recognise, the danger is that familiar is also uncontested and over-generalised.

To move for a moment to “adult lit,” this is what makes a book like Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest an intersting read (and I really should stress it is for adults). When she retells Red Riding Hood she begins

Once upon a time there was a man who lived all alone in the forest

and we are intrigued. “That’s not how it starts,” we might think, but we press on, up a rough track until we come (actually in the next sentences) to

He worked in the forest, tree felling, track filling, ditch digging, and deer killing. Power saw and rifle.

Sara Maitland, November: Kielder Forest , Gossip from the Forest Ch 9

In other words, this is the Story of the Woodcutter set in Maitland’s Kielder Forest section, and a bleak retelling it is. However what it does – what the book attempts – it to wake the sleeping wood into being a repository for stories, in particular women’s stories. Now this is an adult example without illustrations, but we might look at other books and ask What is the author/illustrator trying to wake in us about landscape? It might be that the very traditional setting of Janet and Allan Ahlberg is itself a parody trying to provoke – to wake up a sense of fun (Jeremiah in the Dark Woods does precisely that, I think, and the question I have raised before is the kind of challenge it brings: Do they all live in the same wood?). And if it wakes a sense of fun, it might also provoke a question: Does it have to be like that? Or a set of questions: Does Goldilocks need to find that kind of cottage, does Sleeping Beauty have to be blonde, does Red Riding Hood need a woodcutter? The stuff of the classroom discussion, and the problem of “using” children’s literature (see this from a couple of years ago).

We are into the difficult challenge posed by Jacqueline Rose:

Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence and skills.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.

Is she at loggerheads with Phillip Pullman when he states

But fiction doesn’t merely enteratin – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together…

Phillip Pullman: Balloon Debate “Why Fiction is Valuable” in Daemon Voices

or am I trying to set them in opposition? I understand what Rose is saying about the confining of literature to the pedagogic practices of the classroom and I take her point about the danger of differing modes of representation between play and a “canon” of children’s literature, I am unsure about the dichotomy she stresses where “rhythm and play” and “narrative fiction” are worlds apart. Indeed, I think play and storytelling have a lot in common even when we are not specifically looking at or engaged in the kind of role-play or dramatic play that might begin “I’ll be the dragon and you be the swamp monster.” [Yes that reference is intentional: read the article {abstract here} if only because it is the best title for an academic article ever!] One of the things they have in common is what Pullman describes above: the intimate relationship between humanity and action. But a step behind that is another commonality: the slipperiness of their language, and how in writing about play and story we are very quickly drawn to using imagery and metaphor.

Here, for example, is Pullman (in my opinion) at his bardic finest:

…Most of all, stories give delight….They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral…In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper – and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to because if you did, you’d only turn around to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came…another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

So I return to a word I explored recently: delight and to Bruner’s notion that deep play is playing with fire. Defining a pedagogy of play is this kind of dangerous activity. Are we talking here about how adults can justify something they feel is uncomfortably out of their control? Or moving fun activities up a few notches in status so that there is an entertainment aspect to the input adults make?

Sue Rogers puts it well – so well that I would suggest you, dear Reader, look at her whole chapter Powerful Pedagogies and Playful Resistance in Brooker and Edwards’ Engaging Play, of which the following is a quick highlight:

Two distinct positions are suggested…: first that play is viewed as the undisciplined activity of young children. Thus schools and other early childhood institutions are designed to control and sanitise play so that it reflects adult views of what is good play/bad play. Second, that play is viewed as less important than other activities in classrooms because of the way it is positioned at the margins of what counts as real and necessary activity…

Set against this, opportunities for social pretend play offered children the possibilities to explore identities within their relationships with others and in the process of navigating the dominant pedagogical practices of their classrooms. These identities are not fixed but rather shift with particular play events and social groupings.

Sue Rogers in Engaging Play

Let’s get back outside. Story – and its pull of delight, much the same as play – offer those possibilities to explore identities. That is not to say that they have to be Bibles moralisées, or the instructional tales of early books aimed at children, or even stories with what Jacqueline Rose calls the invisible adult directing the moral purpose, but that there is, in the pull of delight, a need for the familiar reference point as a jumping off into a different world, a different set of speculations. Is Tulip up her tree? Any old tree? What might a tree stand for (I am restraining myslef from more than a link to poor old Vladimir and Estragon and their tree but I found this enlightening) – a useful resource in a forest or a menace from a family history in an ornamental garden? What is life like for the woodcutter – Sara Maitland’s or another storyteller’s? What is life like for Mrs Oldknow when Tolly is gone? The questions – sorry if this sounds fanciful – branch out all over the place, and we have no immediately clear idea, no schema to attach them to. As I have mentioned before, Bettelheim asks What is the kingdom which many fairy tale heroes gain at the story’s end? The ambiguity of this kingdom requires an imaginative leap. In the stories I started with – the anarchic Tulip, the distraught Polly, the girl and her grandfather in the woods – there is always a possibility for this leap beyond the story, but perhaps it is strengthened by the elements of familiarity in a story’s setting: it is like the stepping stone from which the reader can launch themselves into the unfamiliar. For any of us who approach children’s literature with a critical eye, some element of topoanalysis is a vital, enlivening and enriching experience – whether we are booksellers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers, outdoor instructors: yes, and even grandads who take a walk in the woods with the children.

Sort of footnote: Simon James records that His ideal day out is trekking with The Adventurers (four children he knows and who feature in his book Days Like This) wading through streams – with rucksacks full of chocolate. Sarah Garland, until her change of style and pace with Azzi in Between, wrote and drew in locations largely reflecting her experiences in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.

Texts for Difficult Times

Just a quick comment to contextualise these quotations: they are otherwise presented without interpretation – just in case anyone needs them in days when we need hope. Boy do we need it at the moment, and this weekend in particular seems a hard time. As I have prepared them it strikes me how almost scriptural they are: patristic and matristic readings for an Office of another culture.

I suppose I’m really putting them here because I need them. I have used them all before in various ways: the texts are referenced (sort of) by the URL embedded in the title: the URLs to elsewhere in this blog indicate where I have discussed the quotation or the writer in another post. Not all of them have such a link, of course.

I’m hoping, really, that they also stand as an advert for the longer texts from which they are taken. However, if you own the copyright for any of these extracts and don’t want these texts used like this, tell me and they’re gone.

So the first sees the characters whose adventures are set in Sutcliff’s vision of the “collapse” after the withdrawal of Rome: treachery, cowardice, offset by compassion and heroism.

“It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again.

Morning always grows again out of the darkness though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/11/11/hope/

And the next is the charge given to the children at the end of the sequence of The Dark is Rising, as Merlin, like Gandalf before him, prepares to sail away, with humanity very firmly in charge of its own destiny:

“For remember…that it is altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth…

For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and joy.”

Susan Cooper Silver on the Tree https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2018/02/07/end-of-the-matter/

“Sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold.” Rob Macfarlane, half a mile under Yorkshire, discusses what is left by previous lives:

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the mist leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes in fact all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Robert Macfarlane Underland https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/06/25/underland-thoughts-i/

And (hard to choose a section from this book: Sara Maitland on a wood in Scotland; Alan Garner deep (physically and spiritually) in among the alder near his home [where else?]); the question What should we do? from Richard Mabey then Paul Kingsnorth and a call to action:

If there is one thing that the current ecological crisis teaches us it is that we have got our relationships wrong, with woods as with nature more broadly. If we see a wood as a machine, we will behave very differently to the way we would behave if we saw it as an animal. Alive or dead, resource or living place: our attitude, our understanding, directs our behaviours.

Perhaps the old indigenous ways of seeing and the new revelations from scientific investigation might slowly help to change our attitudes, which in turn may help to change our behaviour. It might be a long shot, but it seems the best shot we have; maybe the only one. And I think it begins where so many of the best and oldest stories do: the woods.

Paul Kingsnorth “Forest of Eyes,” in Arboreal https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/02/20/the-first-tree-in-the-greenwood/

And Mary Oliver? Her poems are full of lines and sections of hope, of staring at a sudden bird or fox and seeing something of beauty and compassion in the event. There is a challenge in The Summer Day that is worth putting into this little gallery; the final idea in When Death Comes, too, is hard-nosed but hopeful; Why I Wake Early is oft-cited and very positive. Hard to choose just one, but I chose the last of these simply because this morning I was awake early, and out seeing fox and muntjac, and listening to all the birds:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/05/15/dipping-for-meanings/

And finally, in part to say “thank you” for all these paragraphs and their creators, Alice Walker, from her collection Living by the Word, on the continuing presence of people from history/”herstory” who have helped her and us:

The spirit of our helpers incarnates in us, making us more ourselves by extending us far beyond. And to that spirit there is no “beginning” as we know it (although we might finally “know” a historical figure who at one time expressed it) and no end. Always a hello, from a concerned spiritual ancestor you may not even know you had – but this could strike at any time. Never a good-bye.

Alice Walker “A Name is Sometimes an Ancestor Saying Hi I’m With You.”

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.

Inosculation

Just sometimes a day in January makes me want to believe in spring.  A chilly day down the allotment – should have been the morning but we pressed on – and my task was to finish some hazel coppicing. img_1988Well, actually my task was to tidy the absolute dog’s breakfast I had made of the hazel I had undertaken to coppice on some communal land to one side of the plots. Hacking with a billhook like William Ager had been immensely satisfying but really untidy; a mixture of billhook, bowsaw and ordinary handsaw meant I managed better. At least occupied with coppicing there was was no diggin’ to be done in the claggy soil.

Two rods stand tall on one hazel stool, and turn round each other. At one point they meet, touch and begin a process of fusing together known as inosculation, a joining together: the term has its root in the Latin word for kissing. I am, because of how my mind works, really quite moved by the metaphor – but recognise that I need to get to work. The two rods have, I guess, been working at this for years, but now I need to get cutting. I sort of hope that I can cut the fusion out as a whole piece (but in the end I can’t)… but the time the hazel has taken and the time it takes my saw to undo the fusion seem out of all proportion.

Old man on an allotment hazel stand: hardly great forestry or John Seymour-like land management. Forest School is not survival training; allotmenting is not farming. But once in a while, what we potter about at is something that is in the shadows of a bigger husbandry and a longer history: the stone axe; the horse, the enclosures.  And the kissing metaphor makes me think of so many nature writers’ respect and tenderness for the landscapes they represent. So when I come home, thinking of how this work is explored, I look at various texts. Edward Parnell’s exploring of the ghostlands of literature and his own biography; Thomas Merton’s monks whose “saws sing holy sonnets;” the changing and unchanging downs of the White Horse in David Miles’ book… and then into other writers on my shelves, where I am struck by this:

What a bare desert of a place the world would be without its woods and trees. How long would man live once he had broken the balance.

Ian Niall, in Fresh Woods and Pastures New (Little Toller did one with lovely illustrations by Barbara Greg) is keen eyed and dreadfully prescient about deforestation.

When he cuts down the planting, the copse, the old oak wood, it takes him a little while to see that the drainage is different, that the soil washing into the hollow, and new crops of rock are in his field. The lumbermen come and haul away the timber and every yard of the fields on either side changes in nature, new weeds, new grasses, more sun, less humus, water-logged drains in wet weather, overflowing ditches. A year or two, and the man sees what he has done, but how long must he wait to see it as it once was?

Believing in spring feels easy on a chill, bright January day: believing in a world where we can find ways to harvest from the earth when it looks like the Anthropocene crisis is upon us in the Amazon, Jakarta and Australia feels a lot harder. “Man sees what he has done:” but can we step back from it, somehow? Can we realise our need to reconnect, to re-fuse with the world we live in?

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

 

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*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?

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.

Passport to a Rant

I find myself really torn by the recent DfE initiative around enriching children’s childhoods. img_0772I 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 IMG_9750-1have 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!

O Sweet Woods

…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?

Who Will Go Walk in the Woods?

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.