Thin Places

Wild Spaces Wild Magic in a Time of Lockdown

Of all the things that happened in the weeks before we were corralled into Coronavirus Lockdown, the most fortuitous for me must have been that we – Mat and I – got our trip to Uffington in. I think my enthusiasms for that trip – and the various others we have taken – are clear from any of the blog posts and pages in which they appear, and this one, because it has been followed by the anxiety and almost claustrophobia that our current state has engendered, is especially important to me.

So, what are Thin Places? The guidance given by a Thin Places tour company starts me off: A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds. I like that. So my first question is whether fiction can set off this feeling of thinness. There are certainly books that evoke it (goodness knows I cite enough of them on this blog, from Green Knowe to Thursbitch), but what effect do they have in place? Does one have to have read Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books before visiting the Manor where they are set? Would a trip to the architectural curiosity of a manor house built round a Norman castle be a different trip than the one to see where Tolly sang while his Granny played? I don’t think you have to have read a book to see the beauty (or actually the ugliness) of a place – but maybe that the reading helps make the magic. You might argue that this is where magic and place have met for humans for many centuries: the storytelling explains and helps make the magic.

This is certainly key to the ways in which Alan Garner’s Man in Boneland tells his story, links to his tutelary spirit animals: I think this sums up my thoughts at the moment.

But here we are in a sort of house arrest – if I can use that word without it seeming too pejorative. What can writing (first, and more specifically fiction and then within that “children’s literature”) add to our understanding of, or even access to “thin places”?

This is a line I take with my Masters students, and forms the basis of my argument here:

“Children’s spirituality is more easily described and observed than defined. … I am using the term ‘children’s spirituality’ to refer to that aspect of children’s lives connecting them to a wider sense of meaning-making, to relationships with others and to relationships with the sacred/transcendent.”

(from Mercer, J  (2006) Capitalizing on children’s spirituality: parental anxiety, children as consumers, and the marketing of spirituality International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 11,1, April 2006, 24)

Connecting to meaning-making – relationships with others – relationship with the transcendent. The reading of work that connects the reader to places that have that transcendent quality would seem a good mechanism (not sure I like that word) for understanding something of these three elements.

We can read writers like Paul Kingsnorth, who in his essay in Arboreal reflects on how a forest can “feel you” as you walk through it; it is there (in a different form) in Ronald Hutton; the thinnest place explored in modern nature writing for me has to be Macfarlane’s “sense of being watched” in Lofoten in his masterpiece Underland, something that, before we read it, Mat and I had experienced in the fog at Thursbitch. We can also find this sense of transcendence-in-place in fiction and poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tolkein, in Garner’s adult writing, R S Thomas, Mary Oliver… When Shepherd writes of the feyness she feels in the Cairngorms, is she helping us make meaning in a way we might call spiritual? I think she is; I think all the authors I cite here do this at times. It is common, though not a commonplace.

In writing for children, when writers invite us (as Philippa Pearce does) to the “time, between night and day, when landscapes sleep,” or (with Rosemary Sutcliff as I explore here) to where the eye of the chalk horse “stared back at the sun and moon and circling stars and the winds of all the world…” We understand something of the hugeness of the world, the impossibility of it, its beauty, in these carefully chosen phrases and images; the writers are taking their place as psychopomps, leading us through the thin worlds of their imagination into places of power, beauty and transcendence. I think this is more than just fine writing, however: when she writes of the “larks…singing, the shimmer of their song tossed to and fro on the evening wind” Sutcliff is writing beautifully, and we are in the two worlds of fiction and the here and now – but we are not (or at least I am not) at a moment of transcendence. We are, however, at a moment of meaning-making between Cradoc and Lubrin, antagonist and protagonist: a different aspect of spirituality emerges here?

These outings with authors seem to me to be visits to places where we walk not only in two worlds (something we invariably do in fiction and maybe all descriptive writing) but in places where one world has this element of transcendence. Does our accessing them have an additional importance at this time when we can do so little to see these places “really” and have to rely on the writing to “take us there”? The metaphor seems inescapable, and probably provides the answer.