Category Archives: Land

Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

Where Kevan Manwaring noticeably differs, is that his writing of landscape is immersive. He doesn’t position the reader as an outsider, but as someone actively engaged in the process of being in that landscape. The landscape is not scenery. It impacts of the experiences, thoughts, feelings and inner landscapes of characters. The human is permeated by the bigger picture. As a reader, I experience this much more intensely. I have a feeling experience of what it’s like to be in a place, even in the kinds of places I have no personal experience to bring to bear.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.

You can find Kevan Manwaring here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com


Body as landscape

The body as landscape is an obvious thing to explore in earth-orientated meditations. It’s something I’m wary of, because of the relationship between the female body and landscape in certain kinds of writing and attitude. For the colonial explorer, the exotic, unconquered landscape was something to be entered and used. Penetrated. Exploited. Abuse of the land and abuse of the feminine often go together, and using feminine language for landscapes is part of this process.

At the same time, we’ve a long history of seeing the feminine as closer to nature – not as a compliment, but to make clear that wild, intuitive womanhood is inferior to logical, reasoning masculinity. These gender assumptions harm everyone. Thought and feeling, logic and intuition are available to all of us, we should all have the right to them. It’s not a case of being one or the other.

Currently my midriff looks like the surface of the moon – pale and cratered, while my thighs look like the consequence of mediaeval ploughing. I note that the usual woman/world language doesn’t do this so much. The parallels are usually made to evoke richness and beauty, and not the damage and despoiling intended to follow. In my case it’s just the consequence of weight loss – another paradigm where the language is all about beauty, skipping over the truth of an often unsettling process of transition.

I note that the current vogue in female ‘beauty’ is deforestation. I note the parallel.


Making a labyrinth

I’m on something of a labyrinth journey at the moment (you can read my first blog on the subject here). Having mastered drawing my labyrinth, the next move was clearly to try and make one. I decided to use the space outside my flat, and fallen leaves, as this was easy all round. It was a still day. I intended to make it as small as possible – a labyrinth for a mouse – but I didn’t really know what that would mean in practice and whether I could turn what was in my head into a physical form.

The first thing I realised was that concentric circles already existed on the grass, suggested by a number of small toadstools in incomplete fairy rings. I gave this a moment of serious thought, and came to the conclusion that I was going to have to work with the toadstool rings, and centred accordingly and that all got off to a good start.

I got eight circles down, by which point it was clear that to make a mouse labyrinth was bigger than I had imagined. Then the wind came to play, and just whipped up a few leaves, and suddenly I didn’t have circles anymore, I had a spiral. It was a deeply uncanny moment.

The thing is, that this little area is always full of whirlwinds. What we do here is spirals, and I felt very keenly that my concentric circles just didn’t work, and wouldn’t work and that I was in the wrong place. I can take a hint. Grateful for what I had learned, I started planning my next move…

One of the things that became clear to me in this process was that I really do want to incorporate found, natural items into labyrinth making. It becomes an act of communicating with, engaging with a place rather than just going out and imposing a structure on it. A seasonal element enters the mix – what I can work with will vary through the year.

On the whole I think there is a meditative aspect to making the labyrinth – even my barely started circles gave me reason to think that. It was a good thing to do, and left me wanting to try again. Which I duly did that evening.

The next instalment in the adventure will be out tomorrow!


Staying on the beaten track

There’s a romantic appeal to getting off the beaten track. It can suggest getting ‘back to nature’ – into some purer, more pristine space, less defiled by humans. And of course for a Pagan, that’s got to be attractive. We’re nature people, we want to be close to nature, so why am I suggesting we don’t get off the beaten track?

I mean this very literally, by the way.

First up there’s a practical reason to stay on the path – otherwise you can very easily get lost and in some places, getting lost can kill you. At the very least, stay on the tracks and build stamina and experience before you even think about doing something that takes you further into the wilds.

Consider though, that the more people get out there, off the beaten track in search of pristine nature, the less ‘pristine nature’ there is going to be. If you see human presence as at odds with wildness, then adding your presence is questionable as an action. And no amount of saying ‘I am a special priest of the land and my being there is different’ makes rocking up in your vehicle to do your bit of erosion any less of an impact.

Humans are pushing the rest of nature to the margins. The more we insist on traipsing off into what marginal wilderness remains, the more pressure we put on it. The more resources we use to ‘get away from it all’ – by flying to exotic places, taking 4x4s so we can get off road and so on, the more resources we use and the more harm we do.

When we’re on the beaten path, we are predictable to other creatures. They know where the paths are, it is easier for them to avoid us, and they tend to feel less threatened when we are where they expect us to be (based on my own experiences with deer). If we push into their spaces, they are going to feel threatened. We may frighten them or drive them off. They do not exist for our amusement and we should think carefully about how we treat their space.

When we’re on the beaten path, we can see where we are putting our feet. Some birds make their nests on the ground. Some rare flowers are very small. When we spend time stomping around off the path, we are more likely to harm or kill something.

Paths are ok, and they aren’t unnatural. Deer and badgers make paths. Sheep make paths. Pathmaking is part of how creatures interact with landscapes. Humans are creatures too, and using our own paths to move through a space in a way appropriate to our own bodies, and inoffensive to other life forms, is not some kind of Pagan-fail.

You can, I promise, stand on a path and look at, be moved by and enjoy that which is not on the path. It may be less macho but it’s a good deal kinder and more respectful.


The land: always the land…

lambs_looking_01A guest blog from Talis Kimberley

I was fortunate enough t o spend my childhood in a house with a large garden. I have often said that the garden, not the house, are really where I lived; certainly my memories of it are stronger. Until I was 17 I knew a kindly green landscape where the wheel of the year was punctuated by the emergence of leaves, buds, fruit and nuts, all without any apparent ‘gardening’ whatever, and all free for the gathering, picking, eating, and – in my mother’s case – turning into jellies and jams.

The books I read as a young child undoubtedly romanticised farms and the countryside, and in my suburban garden, stag beetles, fox cubs, furry caterpillars and toads were common sights, and I thought myself a country girl for all I was living in a city suburb.

As an adult, I finally came to live in a village. For the last ten years my home has been in what feels, to me, a very much more rural setting, though as this already-large village expands, some neighbours feel it’s ‘not a village any more’.

I disagree. From the butcher’s shop where meat and dairy goods produced by local farms are sold, to the simple fact that a seven minute walk from my house in any direction will put me in a field, this, to me, is the contemporary countryside.

Most especially, I count farmers among my friends and acquaintances – unheard-of back in the city of my childhood. And those farmers and the things I’ve learned from them have shaped my experience of living here, and inspired many of the songs that comprise my ‘Cloth of Gold – Songs of Sheep and Farming’ collection. (1)

Farmers have it tough here. This townie-born Green activist knows the lure of the romantic idyll, the mixed farm with the named beasts, the five-barred gate, the speckled chickens in the yard, the vintage tractor – these are still the stuff of childrens’ books and TV series , though we should know better. The truth is that farmers are under pressure to diversify because the food they grow and raise often fails to cover its costs. The price of cheap food – and I know that many are hungry in the UK, to our shame, and that ‘food deserts’ exist in many of our cities – is that many farmers have left the land, and increasingly, our food will be grown by agribusinesses whose sole aim is to make a bigger profit than they did last year.

Don’t blame the farmers for the corners some may cut, for the less-than-sustainable choices some may make, when you and I do as much in other aspects of our lives, when we are under pressure and lacking better options.

The farmers I know, from the shepherd who spent most of April’s nights standing in death’s way for her lambs, to the farmer who taught me to kill and draw a chicken for the pot (I am not vegetarian, no. I challenged myself to do what was needful and take responsibility for the birds I raised that they should have a good life and a fast death, and that they should not go to waste) and the farmer-shopkeeper-and-cafe-proprietor who has had several careers in other fields … sorry…! … and who cares passionately about good food and the community who eat it – he sent out a tray of hot sausage rolls for the volunteers when a fundraising event was taking place on the pavement – and the much-missed farmer who sat beside me on the Parish Council making me giggle with his dry observations, drawn from a lifetime on the land: whose cattle were his delight, and who would disagree with me across the council table with gentle humour and civility and a big grin… none of these were or are, careless of the land, nor of the beasts in their care.

Townie-born, I know there is a depth of ignorance on the part of the city-dweller for the countryside, and vice versa as well. As with every other division between us diverse human souls who bleed the same kind of red and are all as prone to despair and loneliness as each other wherever we live, this division serves best those who are laughing down their sleeves at the lot of us, who make the biggest and most powerful national choices in our names, who think that fracking for oil and gas is a good idea, who think that licensing chemicals which are exterminating our bees and other pollinators is a splendid and profitable plan… those same people who have created systems in which good food is deliberately spoiled and sent to landfill while the most vulnerable in our society go hungry – yes, and have in cases starved to death. (2) Yes, in fair England.

I love the land. I always did, in a romantic way, a childlike way; trees were for climbing, streams for fording, grass for rolling down hills in. Now I have a little patch of land to tend and garden, and I know how deeply it feeds my soul, and the demands it makes on me, and I have learned that farmers carry that same weight manyfold.

Some of the songs on ‘Cloth of Gold’ were written about the flock of sheep I am privileged to know. (3) Others inspired by the BBC TV series ‘Wartime Farm’ (4) and still others emerged over the years as again and again, I have tried to tell in my songs the stories in my heart about the land and those who work it. Here are the sheep I know, here is the barn into which I helped harvest hay, here are the people who spend their hearts and strength serving the land that we live on, and here are the ways it matters to me. I hope you will enjoy the songs. Thank you.

 

Talis Kimberley, May 16, 2016

[1] Cloth of Gold at Talis’s webshop: http://www.marchwoodmedia.co.uk/talis/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=11

[2] The death of Mark Woods: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/28/man-starved-to-death-after-benefits-cut

[3] Alfie Purl, a most remarkable Cotswold sheep: http://alfiepurl.co.uk/

[4] BBC’s Wartime Farm: http://www.open.edu/download-your-free-wartime-farm-booklet

 

 


The Living Mountain

“Something moves between me and it. Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” Nan Shepherd, in The Living Mountain.

The Living Mountain is a small book, written somewhere in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s, despite the author’s previous success with three fiction titles. It’s a meditation on the Cairngorms, a hymn of praise and love to the mountains and the life of the mountains. Beautifully written, truly poetic, it’s about what happens when you get over the simple lust for the summit and start engaging with the land. I’m not a mountain person at all, I belong to the hills and valleys, but the sense of being changed by the landscape, of becoming part of it, and becoming more yourself by walking – that all made a lot of sense to me.

I bought The Grampian Quartet (cover to the left, includes The Living Mountain) simply because Robert MacFarlane refers to it so frequently in his books. I’m fast becoming a dedicated MacFarlane fan and wanted to see why he was so in love with these books. I have not been disappointed.

The three novels – The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in the Grampians are all short books originally published individually. They have romantic elements, but defy the habits of romance fiction. All three centre on the adventures of a young female lead coming into her own sense of self, but around those central characters, a whole host of other people gather. In many ways it’s the background people I find really draw me into these stories. There are a lot of vignettes illuminating the lives of women who are not young romantic female leads. The lonely realities of widowhood, the hard labour of working women, the misfits, the aging, the disappointed – all too real, and seldom otherwise represented. In all three stories, the landscape itself is a real presence. A sense of place permeates everything.

At the moment I’m trying to learn how to better write about the land, and my experience of landscape. I’m curious to see how other authors express their own relationship with place. Reading about Scottish mountains makes an interesting contrast with Laurie Lee and Adam Horovitz writing of the valleys of Stroud, and with Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiosis writing down the local folk tales of Gloucestershire, and Alan Pillbeam writing local landscape history. There are many ways into a landscape, and I keep looking for my own path.

More about Nan Shepherd here – http://www.edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk/makars/shepard/shepherd.pdf


Walking without conquest

We did not go to the top of the hill, and as we skirted the side, the thought came to me ‘feminist walker does not conqueror the summit’. Exploration and adventure can often involve the language of conquest. There can be something decidedly macho about the bid for the top, or for covering the distance. Look back at older explorers and adventurers, and there’s a language of penetration, as the man takes the landscape, and the landscape is female. This is something H. Rider Haggard took to a wilfully absurd extreme in King Solomon’s Mines (the mountains that are the breasts of Sheba, and the treasure cave are, when you look at the map, pretty unsubtle).

It’s easy to have even the tamest of walks turn into something that is about achievement, in a way that has a really interesting impact on our relationship with the land itself. The top of the hill is just as much about reaching the summit and looking down on everything as the top of a mountain might be. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing things or getting to the highest point. The issue is how motives and intent affect experience. There is more to a hill than reaching the top of it, but if we’re only interested in the summit, we may miss a lot of things along the way.

This is perhaps doubly interesting  as an issue for Pagans. Many of us see land, or the Earth as a whole, in terms of goddess. Mother Earth, Gaia; if we understand this as her body, then how we walk upon it, is worth thinking about. Are we here to penetrate the forest, or the cave? Regardless of gender, we can cast ourselves in really macho roles in relation to our journeys.

It’s a different process to walk as someone who is interested in seeing how the landscape unfolds. Being someone for whom each wrinkle, each bump and curve, is important, and engaging. To be someone who seeks out not just the pretty, picturesque faces but is willing to walk through old industrial sites and new ones, along main roads, under motorways – this too is the land. The land does not always wear the face of a beautiful virgin goddess – if previous visitors have ravaged her, she may bear scars and open wounds, lines of sorrow, and she may seem hostile.

If we simply go to take, if we walk to possess and to be gratified, seeking only what is most pleasing to us, caring only for the face of the land where other humans have not bruised that face with careless treatment, we are still colonialists. Regardless of personal gender, we are still the man in the pith helmet who wants to penetrate virgin forests to bring back prizes. We don’t have to be that. We can walk in sympathy. We can walk with empathy and with a desire to know and understand, to be present rather than to conquer. Then we find that the side of the hill has its own precious qualities, different from the summit but no less worthy, and everything changes.


Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.


Lessons from the landscape

Yesterday we walked the Stroud Five Valley’s walk – 21 miles up and down the hills. It was our second attempt. Last year we managed the whole thing, but limped home in significant pain, a long time after the last buses had gone and the checkpoints closed. This year my lad bailed at 19.55 miles, and came home on the bus with a certificate, while Tom and I managed the whole thing and strolled past the last checkpoint with it still open.

After last year we spent a lot of time discussing what had happened and how we could improve on kit, pacing, and food. All of that went to plan, and made a definite difference. The lad of course is bigger, and that helps, but in addition we’ve spent the year improving our stamina for longer walks, and our ability to get up and down the hills. My thighs are still not what they could be in this regard, and my aim is to do it next year in the time and with considerably less pain! Working with a body that is prone to fatigue and pain at the best of times, meant that pushing to do this was an enormous challenge. I was very nearly thwarted by sleep deprivation a week ago, but was able to pull back from there, although it was a close thing.

It’s a lot easier doing a tough walk when you know what’s coming and can pace accordingly. Simply having done the route last year changed our relationship with the journey. One long climb with four different spots that look like the top but aren’t put a huge dent in morale last year. This year we approached it saying ‘right, you bastard….’ and found it easier just because we weren’t caught out by how much there was to do. Still a tough hill, but it didn’t break us because we knew what it was. Often it’s not what the body can take, it’s what the head can persuade the body to take.

One of the biggest impacts for me was the overall change in relationship with the landscape. A year ago, and there were many places on the walk that were unknown to me. I frequently didn’t know where I was. This year I knew at all times at least roughly where I was in relation to everything else. Every view revealed a familiar feature, and there were many points where the route crossed other walks I’ve taken. There might be more sense of adventure walking in an unfamiliar place and not knowing what you might see next, but a long journey through a familiar landscape is a much easier thing.

Much of this is to do with thinking. If everything is unfamiliar, there’s a lot more mental processing involved, and this is tiring. I suppose if you don’t really look at the landscape, this isn’t an issue, but I wouldn’t be much of a Druid if I went through the countryside in a state of cheerful oblivion just following the route markers. There were lovely surprises in the form of little paths I’d not known about. We saw deer, buzzards and ravens despite the number of people around.

Today I hurt, but nothing like as much as I did at this point last year. I’ve learned to pace, to recognise that my body can’t do everything, and needs gentle treatment if I am to accommodate anything more ambitious. If I am careful, I can keep body pain down to tolerable levels, and I can do the odd outrageous thing. If I choose carefully, I can do what I intend, and if I try to do everything I can end up able to do nothing. I’ve learned a lot about recognising and honouring my own limits, and the consequence is that sometimes I can push those limits to good effect.


Writing the land

I’ve been reading a lot of landscape writing, and a number of authors writing about writing the landscape (Robert McFarlane, Landmarks, Rebecca Beattie, Nature Mystics, Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth). I’m interested in how we talk about landscape, the cultural impacts of how we position ourselves in relation to the ‘natural’ world, and I admit, the scope for doing more of this kind of writing myself.

I’m noticing a trend. The authors who stand out as nature writers tend to record something that is passing. These are often records of loss, whether that’s John Clare’s pre-enclosure world and the loss of freedom that followed, Thomas Hardy’s loss of rural tradition with the coming of industrialisation and urbanisation, lost traditions – drovers and pilgrims, lost ways of life, lost species or lost habitats, there’s a mournful, nostalgic quality to a lot of nature writing.

I think some of this is simply because people like a good wallow in nostalgia with a side order of self pity. It think it’s a curious counterpoint to the progress narrative that even as we collectively embrace the tale of the great forward march of progress, we are at the same time persuaded of a more innocent, better time before it all got ruined and degraded. When the magic better time was varies, but a couple of generations ago is a fair bet. Much as I don’t like UKIP, it’s clear some of their support comes from a fantasy of what England was like back in the unspecified good old days.

To be a successful nature writer in the long term is to correctly identify what’s on the way out and record it for posterity. Your peers will share in the mournful recognition, and the future will look back at the better things you lived to see the last of. That is of course a terrible simplification, but relevant nonetheless.

What that I love in this world is passing? Shall I mourn the fields disappearing under unaffordable homes, the bees, the rainforests, the lost species? Shall I mourn each new road and each place despoiled? It would be a bloody miserable project, to commit to recording every wound. Doing so would also tie me into the narrative of loss and decay. I don’t want to do that – this is not a story I want to feed into.

So, I’m going to go the other way. I’m going to start thinking about the facets of life that look untenable to me. I’m going to think about walking the margins of life in the 21st century, and all the things that could change if we ditch the progress/trashing narrative, and do something better. I’m going to consciously choose the era I want to see end, and I’m going to write, slowly and occasionally, about that. Not for some book I foresee publishing in a year or two, but for something decades down the line. Something that may only be relevant after I’m dead.

I’m increasingly interested in living the change. I will not be another poet of loss and backward glancing. I want to do something different.