What did you go out into the wilderness to see? Briefly here, some thoughts about our latest trip, following from my previous blog post.
A day in the sunshine with Mat was not to be sneezed at. He made us sandwiches; I made coffee but forgot to bring cups. It was a sunny day, chilly when the “cloud puffballs” blew over the hills. I was surprised at all the details I thought I knew about the book that had escaped me. Little things I need to check or rethink: where is Wayland’s Smithy in Sun Horse Moon Horse? Or the barrows by the head of the great White Horse we took time to find?
I am glad we took both Rosemary Sutcliff and David Miles with us – at least in book form; but over and over I felt challenged by the environment. Is this what Sutcliff wanted her readers to see?
I was surprised at how my understanding of “nature” is enriched but also boundaried by names. Nomina nuda. We found no Wych Elms for the protagonist of Sun Horse Moon Horse to climb, even though we explored the angles he might have found useful (hence, in part, the “looking with”), and looked at ash, and thorn and willow… But while, like the Apache Robert Macfarlane discusses at the start of Landmarks, I can appreciate “how powerfully language constructs the human relation to place” I seem more about the Adamite naming of individual things today: I speculate about some emerging umbel, name the skeletal elders in the valley and the wild apples just by them – but not the living-in, climbing in, indwelling ecology of John Muir (Landmarks again – but I am also just back from Muir’s birthplace of Dunbar): the sweep of my gaze is external and slow on the whole. Mat on the other hand has such sharp eyes that the beetle (the one that shot red snot at him), the movement of a mouse in the grass and the quartering of a kestrel could not escape him: his voice lifts when he talks about the life of a hunting bird to such an extent I could almost believe that the “morning’s minion” could be his spirit animal… [Not so sure why Gerard Manley Hopkins is in my mind as I write]
What do I go out into the wilderness to see? I think I look for somewhere to belong – perhaps this is close to a kind of mystical appreciation? Or maybe I’m overwriting it. Writers like Jacquetta Hawkes, like Robert Macfarlane, seek to describe for us, impassion us with their view of land. In the Guardian article I’ve linked to with Rob, he asks about in situ reading, and today we had a popular textbook, for want of a better phrase, and a novel. I needed more maps, plans, paper for notes, ID books for birds and plants – but ah! we had Sutcliff to read in situ. Is her vision of Uffington flawed, as David Miles suggests and I have explored previously? How much does that matter in reading her work? As MacIntyre notes (and I cite here) “Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions,” and maybe fictionalised or mythologised accounts such as Sutcliff’s have a power that does not depend on the changing views of historical evidence. Reading the departure of Lubrin’s people it did not matter today: it always brings a lump to my throat – that inexorable ending, too, can move me to tears.
And so Mat and I stand on the northern ramparts by the Western gate; this is where Sutcliff’s hero, Lubrin the dark, stood, a sacrificial liberator, looking at his people leaving. Except, of course, he did not stand here: Lubrin is a fictional character, and when I say in my post’s title I was “looking with Lubrin“ I know he is even more distant than Lucy Boston’s Tolly. As distant in some ways as Garner’s Man in Boneland or Gawain. What I’d suggest is that Lubrin is now (in some sort) a creature of a legend, a story which Sutcliff has made a powerful, grounded and located origin myth. It makes me wonder how many origin stories have in the past been this located. The Oak of Mamre – the Pool of Excalibur – the Labyrinth of Minos: place and ritual and story, working together to explain and to convey a sense of continuity, maybe something of the same continuity that keeps the White Horse, as David Miles says, “vigorous and gleaming…ready to witness another millennium…”