Sunday, June 26, 2011


That which is regarded with the greatest awe and wonder by indigenous, oral cultures is ... none other than what we view as nature itself. The deeply mysterious powers and entities with whom the shaman enters into a rapport are ultimately the same forces – the same plants, animals, forests and winds – that to literate, 'civilized' Europeans are just so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop of our more pressing human concerns.”
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

 In a bend of the stream, I watch my children play, piling stones into the current, packing the spaces with mud scraped from the small bluff overhanging the channel. When the dam is finished, they are scouring the ground, faces pressed to the cropped turf, their noses tickled by the moth's-wing touch of bedstraw and tormentil, wild thyme and milkwort.
They have found a peace in being outdoors that has grown with them as they get older; an accommodation with the natural world which asks few questions, but sees patterns and rhythms which my adult, over-intellectual mind fails to discern.
When they were small, there was a favourite oak wood we visited often for walks; a downy burr of green cloaking the side of the fell, merging into bilberry and heather on the higher slopes. For reasons almost lost in the mists of family apocrypha, we called it 'the fairy wood': it was the place where the sharp-eyed could see woodland spirits among the trees. Six or seven years ago a violent winter storm ripped through the wood, topping many of the oaks, leaving the mossy floor scattered with twisted and splintered limbs. The pain was palpable, a loss of life which the children felt as deeply as any of us. Their relationship with that wood had become a spiritual one, going beyond aesthetics. They knew the spirit of the place, and it felt good.
Their attitude to the natural world, their sense of kin and being which turns any walk into a treat of exploration, was formed in their early, pre-literate years. When their minds were not clogged with books and words, when they thought in tones and rhythms, not sentences and the endless chatter which echoes in our western minds, they were most open to the epiphanies which nature offers. Their unforced sense of the numinous made our own outdoor trips more alive, more intense. They became our guides to a world we had seen previously only through tired, jaded eyes.
In traditional cultures, the role of intermediary with the natural world was fulfilled by the shaman; the one who lived at the edge of the village, both of and beyond the quotidian world of human concerns. It was the shaman who understood the healing properties of plants and herbs, who could read the weather and keep the wild scavengers at bay. To view the role of the shaman purely in terms of 'primitive magic' is to ignore the magic which is open to all of us, every day; it is the magic which is felt and understood by children when they are outdoors, remembered in their limbs in the way that birds remember their migration routes, or the way that trees remember the change in light and temperature which opens their new buds in spring.
In our culture, the shamans are still at the edge of the adult, human world. They are to be found making dams in the stream, following beetles across a log, or bringing our attention to the dew misting a spider's web, the uncommon shapes of clouds, the woodland spirits which move at the edge of our disbelieving vision.

Do you remember, when you were first a child,
Nothing in the world seemed strange to you?
You perceived, for the first time, shapes already familiar,
And seeing, you knew that you have always known
The lichen on the rock, fern-leaves, the flowers of thyme,
As if the elements newly met in your body,
Caught up into the momentary vortex of your living”

Kathleen Raine, 'Message from home'

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The dying of the light

It rained in the night, but the morning was clear and crisp, as though the day had been fleshly washed. And in a way it was, for last night was the summer solstice, the cusp of the year. At this point on the earth's restless curve around the sun, we in the northern hemisphere are tilted as close as we can get to its light. From here on, the light declines to the short days of winter. The swifts, stitching the summer skies with their screams, must know that they have only a few weeks at best before they must be gone. Even the curlews, trilling over the summer meadows, must dream of windswept coasts and open beaches.
I walked today in an old oak wood on the shores of Crummock Water, and wondered if the trees know that the solstice has passed, whether they feel the slough of autumn heavy in their limbs. On wet sunlit days like these, one can almost feel the ambivalent pull of the tree; its roots squirming for water, its limbs stretching for light. Somehow, these two forces are held in perfect equilibrium, striving for a balance which eludes us, out of kilter as we are with the rhythm of the seasons.

On the way home, the hedgerows were blowsy with the summer opulence of honeysuckle and roses, the verges sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, slowly turning their faces to the receding sun. In mainland Europe, these flowers are more firmly associated with midsummer; in Germany, one of their folk names is Sunnwendbleaml or 'solstice flower'. A flower for the turning of the light. A talisman against the chaff of modern living.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Landscape and memory (2)

Last week I was in Flevoland, in the Netherlands.  It is a land of overwhelming flatness, even by dutch standards.  The horizon is broken by tall poplars, farm buildings, the white forests of wind turbines turning lazily in a perpetual breeze.  The whole of the province is polder: it was reclaimed from the Zuider Zee (now the Ijsselmeer) by dykes and drains in the 1960s.  The cities – Almere and Lelystsad – are laid out with an exacting precision, an urban planner’s dream of a perfect new community. It is apparently a land without memory or palimpsest; a land where all the trees are of the same age and girth, where fields do not melt into untidy corners of scrub and wildness.

Dutch colleagues I spoke with of my own age remember the draining of the land, being brought here by their curious parents to watch the polder appearing from beneath the sea.  In a country recoiling from the horrors of the second world war, the polders fulfilled a dream of a new country.  It also provided essential new living space, the sad irony of Lebensraum for a displaced people.
Recently, archaeologists found a skeleton of a young woman buried beneath the dusty soil.  Estimated at 9,000 years old, she has been named Michelle, reflecting that curious passion we have for naming the historic dead, giving them names with which we can identify, rather than the ones they may have had in life.  She and her companions would have lived in a flat landscape of swampy plains at the edge of a sheltered sea, at a time when post-glacial sea levels were lower.  I like to imagine this as a benign land for them; free from the predators in the dense woodlands further inland, warm and low-lying, with access to fish and plants.  I am told this is the oldest skeleton yet found in the Netherlands.  The discovery of Michelle’s remains gives Flevoland a history, a claim to antiquity, and counterbalance to the new fields and neat urban design.
When the polder was created, an area of lower-lying damp land near the margins of the sea was left to re-wild, without agriculture or urban sprawl.  It is called the Oostvardersplassen, and has become a home to ospreys and buzzards, storks and egrets.  Barry Lopez, in his haunting essay A Reflection on Wild Geese, offers the Oostvardersplassen as an example of how humans can find a more meaning ful balance with nature, “holding tenaciously” he writes “to this image of reparation”.  Perhaps it is like the land which Michelle and her family hunted or fished in 7,000 BC.  Like the coastal salt marshes of eastern England, it holds the tang of salt in its soil, the memory of the sea in the sound of the wind hushing through the willows.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shadows outside the window

“How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet … solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

If I cross Manchester with more than ten minutes to spare, I enter the City Art Gallery.  It must be one of the finest provincial galleries in the country.  I have my favourites there; the spaces where I can sit and stare at paintings I know quite well, hoping that they will reveal further secrets to me: some excellent pre-raphaelites, Mervyn Peake's stunning painting The Glassblower, and James Durden’s Summer in Cumberland.

The painting offers a bucolic scene of afternoon tea taken in a well-to-do country house.  The year is 1925.  The view of Derwent Water in the background with Catbells beyond indicates that the house is on the slopes above Keswick, perhaps it is near Latrigg.  The shadows across the carpet suggest that it is late afternoon. 
And yet there is something haunting about this picture; the young man in cricket whites seems poised on the edge of the group, excluded from the silver tea-tray, hovering long-limbed and awkwardly in the garden.  The colour of the sky hints of possible rain after tea. 
The painting captures in an oblique way that period bracketed by two wars, when the modernists wrestled with the search for understanding in the world, a promise that nothing so terrible could happen again.  1925 was the year in which T.S. Eliot wrote The Hollow Men (“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”) and Virginia Woolf published Mrs Dalloway.  It was the era of Eric Ravilious’ brief candle of a career, illuminating the landscape of English modernism, of his collaborations with David Jones and Edward Bawden.  At Capel-y-ffin, Eric Gill, nurturing his dreams of ideal communities away from the turmoil of the world, designed the Perpetua typeface.  In Paris, the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts brought Art Deco to the world.
In the drawing-rooms of country houses in Cumberland, meanwhile, tea was still served on silver platters.  Cricket matches may be briefly postponed for rain, or the village may struggle to find enough young men to raise a team,  but one could rely on the whites being freshly pressed for the weekend.  Durden’s picture may seem immune to the stirrings of the outside world, but we know in hindsight how the new promise of the 1920s contained the seeds of its own destruction.  There is something awful about to happen in the world beyond the window.  1925 also saw the publication of Mein Kampf.  The world would never be the same again.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Emperors of the air

It is late May, although the air feels uncommonly cold, gusting through the open shutters of the bird hide in which I am hunkered.  We are waiting for red kites, which come every day at two o’clock to this place where they are fed.  Although we arrived early, there were several jinking and bucking on the southerly wind, riding the air like teenage surfers, ranged on the lines of invisible breakers above us.  They coast the broken contours of this marginal land, their magnificent forked tails tilting and twisting in movements too subtle for us to understand; adjustments as instinctive as those we make to control our balance.

When the feeding starts, the kites gather closer, bobbing and turning at the edge of our vision before diving to pick pieces of meat off the ground in a single, precise movement.  One after another they come, in a mesmeric flow which fills the air with their shrieking call.  It is a sound until recently forgotten from our landscapes, and a reminder of the talismanic property which kites have; they are the bird of revival, of regeneration.  A phoenix for our times.
I came late to birds in my life.  They were always there, their rippled wings flickering at the edge of my vision, but I never learned the lexicon of their brief lives.  Only later, learning slowly from my children what their agile, bird-like minds could grasp in an instant, did I take the time to watch birds, to learn their names and calls.  What appeals to me, as I watch my children darting their vision from tree to bush, catching the ‘jizz’ of movement much faster that I, is an appreciation of birds which are common and often overlooked.  It is not for me the single sighting of a rarity which thrills; it is the spectacle of birds and the unfolding of their daily lives.
Our fascination with birds is founded on two great mysteries; two facts which have always soared above our leaden, earth-bound imaginations.  The first is flight, that state we can attain only in our dreams; the ability to leave behind our terrestrial concerns for a purer, clearer medium.  We can only imagine how the world looks to a bird; not a flat, two-dimensional world laid out before us like a map; more a three-dimensional space in which food or predators appear above or below, in which movement is possible in every direction.
The second mystery is that of migration; the dizzying fact of improbable journeys, told in notes of unfamiliar song from willow trees or hedgerows.  Migration marks our turning of the seasons, the almost painful hope that this year, once again, they will appear.  We might now laugh at the idea that Linnaeus and Gilbert White believed that swallows hibernated underwater, but surely it is easier to believe in special aquatic adaptation than to face the impossible fact of journeys beyond our dreams?  With their hollow bones and compass brains, their scent for the changing of the moon and the pull of ancestral journeys remembered before they are taken, birds are far more magical and mysterious than we can imagine.