Sunday, 18 January 2015

'And far away a mountain zone ...'


"And far away a mountain zone,
A cold white waste of snow-drifts lies"
Speak of the North, Charlotte Bronte

The new year's first encounter with a snowscape, and its the exceptional array of colour that fixes in the memory: the white and grey shades of the snow and sky a counterpoint to the tawny russet and sodden green of the hillsides. The winter sun seems to bring urgency to its brief displays and, filtered through cirrus and mist, its light pulls the life up out of a landscape that could otherwise appear drab and dormant at this time of year. 


Here in the Black Mountains the snow line is above about 300 metres; thick, dominant and drifting on the tops and slopes facing north and west into the weather front, more fleeting and peripheral on more sheltered ground. Long views become visions of coalescence: if not exactly the Antarctic vastness of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, there is the same "tendency of snowy earth and sky to merge into one mystical opalescent void with no visible horizon to mark the junction of the two".   















Up on the Pen Allt Mawr ridge, in Edward Thomas' 'great silence of snow', the whiteness is satisfyingly deep and proper; every footstep crunching in line with our childlike expectation of how snow should be, innocent of slush and dirt and imminent waning.




One of the many joys of a landscape visited by snow is the shape-shifting quality it can bring to familiar features.

The stone of a usually welcoming summit shelter, now a threatening ice-bound realm.  

  
A fallen tree cloaked in snow, with strangely human lines; from the mind of Andy Goldsworthy.



A trig point looming out of the cloud becomes a thing of ghostly sentinel reassurance amidst the enveloping whiteness.
  
Though walking in wintry conditions requires care and knowledge, in the words of R.S. Thomas snow feels no pity, it can also be a welcoming host; on heather uplands the thin dotted green or black path lines on the map become gleaming white high ways on the ground, illuminating the route ahead. This snowy benevolence enhanced by the boot tracks that give confidence of the right path taken (assuming a lost soul is not being followed). On this occasion the hard stamped marks of a fell runner anticipated my route, the same circuit completed in reverse.



   


























And, in this far away mountain zone, how does it feel? It feels like I don't ever want to come down.




Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sharron Kraus - Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails


Cold and damp January days require an appropriately melancholic soundtrack and I've recently been enjoying Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by a new find, Sharron Kraus. Sparse and, dare I say, ethereal, the album is inspired by the landscape of the Elan Valley in Mid-Wales, a place to which Kraus regularly returns and feels a longing for whenever she is away: hence the naming of the first track, Hiraeth, the beautiful Welsh word for the call of the land. Of recording the album in the valley, Kraus states that "I feel like I've travelled back in time - into my own memories and into the past - or into a land of faery". The titles of the other tracks, some including field recordings of birds, streams, waterfalls, wind and rain, continue this sense of place and memory:


Rowan
Cadair Idris
Candlemas Moon
Winding Road
Dark Pool
Y Fari Lwyd
Farewell 


According to Kraus' web site, "As well as drawing on the folk traditions of England and Appalachia, her music is influenced by gothic literature, surrealism, myth and magick". Alongside another current folk favourite similarly inspired by the landscape and folklore of rural, upland Wales, Tincian by 9Bach, this sounds good to me. I look forward to discovering more of these sounds - of dulcimer, drone, recorder and harp - with echoes of the American psych-folk of the likes of Espers and Richard Skelton's and Autumn Richardson's landscape-inspired music, words and imagery.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Dig: a bleak midwinter read


No end of year list this. Just a short recommendation of a short, stark and arresting novel: a bleak midwinter read.

The Dig is Cynan Jones' fourth book, but the first that I have found. It is the story of two men who's lives are ingrained in the cold, sodden fields of the hill country of mid Wales; one a recently bereaved sheep farmer, the other a single-minded badger-baiter. The language and tone of the narrative is sparse and bleak and matter of fact, reflecting the landscape in which the two protagonists edge towards their, seemingly inexorable, fated confluence.

It is clear where most reader's sympathies will lie: with Daniel, the farmer bringing new life at lambing time, sleep-walking through the long hours occupied by memories of his dead wife, rather than the un-named big man with his dogs and his barbarous occupation. But this is an unsentimental picture of rural life and both men are of the land; making a living through their knowledge and understanding of the animals they share their days with. Indeed they are both in some way trapped in their existence in the fields. Of the big man we are told: "He was too much of an instrument to change what he did".

The writing of Cynan Jones has been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. I was also reminded of God's Own Country by Ross Raisin, rooted in the North York Moors and the words of its upland anti-hero narrator. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider. 


Reading the book reminded me of two of my own observations from earlier in the year; brief glimpsings that unsettled, and have stayed with me. The first was on a local walk, during a cold and glowering late winter morning. Resting at a field gate affording a fine wide-screen view, I was drawn to the sound of dogs and men closer to hand. Down-slope at the fields edge (the field in these photographs) I surveyed a pick-up truck, its occupants digging in the bank running along the boundary, accompanied by insistent barks. I did not linger, was not seen. But I had seen them and wondered what their labours were in this lonely spot. Perhaps renewing a fence or clearing scrub? This was not the view I came away with though. There was something malevolent in the air. Had I happened across badger-baiters? was the question that nagged for the rest of the day.
A contrasting day and location in the summer: waiting at a rural level crossing in the Aire Valley, North Yorkshire and the only people disembarking into the sunshine from the two carriage diesel unit are a rag tag band of teenage boys; track-suited hyperactivity - lads from the estates of Keighley or Bingley or Bradford, maybe Leeds I surmised. As we waited on opposite sides of the crossing gates their exuberance was a striking counterpoint to the reticent village halt that had just accepted them. Equally frantic dogs accompanied the boys, one of whom carried a wooden box in which his ferrets lurked. As the gates lifted the gang unhesitatingly and knowingly climbed the nearest four bar and raced across the large field adjacent to the station, their released dogs filling its space. Space that minutes earlier had been the benevolent preserve of their prey, gambolling rabbits. I carried on my way as a passing local resident dialled the number of the field's owner.


The Dig gives voice to such encounters at the sharp end of rural life. The story dissects our cosy view of the countryside to reveal the unbidden and often unspoken darkness that lurks at every gate post, in every copse, atop every hill. A reminder that harsh, hard lives and deeds bleed into the landscape still.


Friday, 12 December 2014

I see winter coming in


A December walk from my East Bristol city-suburb front door, through the green places of Fishponds, Frenchay and Stapleton. The images speak of Emily Dickinson's words: 'there's a certain slant of light, winter afternoons', and I see winter coming in.












Thursday, 4 December 2014

Where is the (human) life of the fields?



After a two month lay-off due to a ruptured Achilles tendon I am glad to be back out roaming again. A day of late autumnal brilliance led me to a favourite place, the hidden combes below the hamlet of Cold Ashton: a becalmed swathe of deep England happy in its steeply contoured obscurity. I’ve been afoot here for a decade, at least twice a year. Absorbing the solitary serenity it occurred to me that I could hardly recall ever meeting or even seeing another human being on these numerous wanderings, once away from the road. To be in a long settled and wrought landscape, a stone’s throw from Bath and Bristol, in a densely populated country and have the place to yourself – acres of splendid isolation - is a curious thing. There is much to gain from wandering alone – time to think, away from the clamouring noise of everyday life – but this got me wondering existential thoughts about the very idea of my lone occupation of such places.

How we, the neo-landless masses, interact with landscapes outside of the narrowly prescribed to and fro of our immediate living, working, leisure and travel environments is something to ponder whilst out on an unshackled walk: even the most lowly cottager of pre-urban society would most likely covet our home comforts but be at a loss to understand how little of the land around us we actually have a stake in through common rights and custom. Such thoughts bring land ownership and legal rights of access into sharp relief, as well as the artificial lines that are often drawn between the rural and the urban. These themes are at the heart of two recent media articles: Prince Charles' comments in Country Life berating the loss of connection between urban dwellers and rural life (apparently unencumbered by the irony of a beneficiary of enormous inherited wealth and estates admonishing the descendants of those driven off the land by poverty or coercion for their lack of understanding of the countryside); and Simon Jenkins' article on threats to the rural landscape as he comes to the end of his term as Chair of the National Trust. In their different ways both seek to reinforce the view that the countryside needs more 'protection' from development and change. This is in many ways an admirable sentiment, as is Jenkins' view, mirroring a current campaign by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, that the pressures on the housing market should be primarily met by developing brownfield and derelict sites in urban areas. 

However, in seeking to preserve the rural landscape in idealised form there is a danger that it becomes an ossified version of itself; notwithstanding the fact that efforts to defend and conserve landscapes in this way, through designation, campaigning, management schemes and so on, necessarily have to focus on those deemed to be of most value, thereby leaving swathes of less heralded countryside at the mercy of intensified agri-business and mission creep urban infrastructure. The binary problem of a concentrated but spreading urban population, culturally adrift from its high status (and high cost) rural hinterland can only be exacerbated if this is our only response to developers and businesses who see the countryside in terms of pound signs. 

Curiously, one of the more optimistic sounding conservation movements of the moment, rewilding, may only add to this problem if followed to its logical extremes (and the rhetoric of some of its advocates seems to be worryingly fundamentalist in tone, with vague exhortations to 'control' human population and immigration). There is certainly significant scope for returning parts of the landscape to a more self-willed natural state - thereby enabling flora and fauna to reestablish a less anthropocene dominated ecological balance. Though rewilding surely has its place, it should be remembered that, in Asa Briggs words "...nature and culture - the latter a word derived from the land - are inextricably entangled in Britain as a whole" and if human engagement with the environment was even more highly concentrated in the urban (and suburban) realm to enable the wild to reassert itself elsewhere then the landscape - and our relationship with it - would be all the poorer.





As the images from my recent walk shown here illustrate, much of the rural landscape is remarkably depopulated, like a Hardy-esque scene 'swept by a spectral hand'. This is at odds with the received wisdom of a crowded, densely populated island where it is no longer possible to find space or tranquillity. In fact in pre-modern societies, though the total population was much smaller than today (cities of any significant size having yet to develop) it was more evenly dispersed, with hundreds of residents in even the most remote parish or township; the shouting and unruly swains, shepherds, woodsmen, maids and gypsies of John Clare's poetry-social commentary. Even in Richard Jefferies time, the late nineteenth century, as he traces the course of a spring-born brook through 'the life of the fields' in Wild Life in a Southern County the wildlife and natural history that he observes are in the context of a highly peopled environment - in field, wood, farmstead, hamlet and village. This pattern of settlement, allied to the fact that the majority of the population were engaged in working the land in some way, meant that today's rural backwaters were much busier places. To give an example, on my three mile route along the hushed valleys around Cold Ashton there can be seen grassed over terraced strip lynchets indicating medieval land under the plough, the ruins of a mill and its silted up pond, woodland intensively managed as coppice until recent times, an abandoned farmstead and numerous tracks and holloways that are now verdant footpaths or overgrown but would have been well used thoroughfares. This pattern could be replicated on a similar short walk in pretty much any part of the British Isles (and would in fact be magnified in many upland areas, often haunted by the memories of even more dramatic abandonment and desertion from prehistoric times through to the early modern period). 

Does this matter? Is it simply an inevitable consequence of processes steadily advancing ever since the first furnaces of the Industrial Revolution were stoked? 
      




I think, to misuse Rachel Carson's famous phrase, these silent fields do matter. At the conclusion of his treatise on the relationship between the rural and the urban in English literature, The Country & the City, Raymond Williams shines a light on the powerful pressures exerted by capitalism leading to "a simultaneous crisis of overcrowded cities and a depopulating countryside". This remains the nub of the problem; how it can be challenged is the conundrum. Of course I am not advocating a developer's charter to concrete over the countryside, far from it. But perhaps if the concept of 'localism' is to be more than hollow sloganeering then it could be a bulwark to provide room for people, including those from the town looking to renew their links with the land but lacking the City salary or pension to purchase a hobby farm, to re-establish a foothold in the furlong, the coppice, the hillside trod. This means enabling people to build livelihoods, homes and communities in a rural setting, from the bottom up; sometimes this might make, for instance, the Cotswolds look a little scruffier (and upset the coach-bound countryside voyeurs), sometimes it might not work or be unsightly, but what's the alternative? Disconnected populations corralled into brownfield site ghettos whilst the wolf roams a returning wildwood unhindered, in earshot yet far away; and farm managers tend their spreadsheets, a robotic workforce tilling the land. 

If we are to move beyond the long-running position of stasis in the relationship between the wider population and the physical environment in which they live, if G.K. Chesterton's "people of England, that have never spoken yet" (as proxy for people everywhere) are to be awoken from their deep coma of complacency, fatalism and inertia and move beyond reductive visions of the country versus the city, then we could make a start by telling our social history like it really was: the landscape as much a setting for radical transformations as apolitical continuity and conservative evolution. The real story of why and how people left the land, how common land rights and responsibilities operated (and their limitations), how enclosure revolutionised the landscape and "in taking the commons away from the poor, made them strangers in their own land" (as outlined in E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common), and so forth. This is not about looking backwards - yearning for a golden age that never existed. To quote Thompson again "We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities".

So, can I glimpse a possible future in which I would be able to wander these valleys and pass by numerous small communities, their endeavours part of the daily rhythm of a landscape in which they had a stake, freed from wage slave dislocation from their surroundings? Would these green images be enhanced by peopled colour? Wonder at the beauty to be found in the countryside untempered by the melancholy thought that I am merely observing the relics of human activity and there is no one here to enjoy it but me. Perhaps this sounds a little too like Thomas More's Utopian Republic; the idealised pastoral socialism of William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere. Well I'm a dreamer, and maybe that's no bad thing. What thoughts a walk in quiet country can provoke.






References

Briggs, A. 1987. A Social History of England. Penguin.

Clare, J, 1990. Selected Poems. Penguin.

Hardy, T, 1998. Nobody Comes in Everyman's Poetry: Thomas Hardy. Everyman.

Jefferies, R, 2011. Wild Life in a Southern Country. Little Toller.

More, T, 2003. Utopia. Penguin.

Morris, W, 1993. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Penguin.

Thompson, EP, 1993. Customs in Common. Penguin.

Williams, R, 2011. The Country & the City. Spokesman.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Reliquiae Journal - Volume Two


Reliquiæ is an annual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art, edited by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton. Each issue collects together both old and new work from a diverse range of writers and artists with common interests spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism.

Full print contents:

~ Thomas A Clark's collection of poetic aphorisms from the island of Colonsay.
~ Don Domanski's lecture on poetry, sacredness, and 'how each thing holds a mystery'.
~ Two visionary poems of death and darkness from Julia McCarthy.
~ An excerpt from Ronald Johnson's seminal poem of the English landscape, 'The Book of the Green Man'.
~ Peter O'Leary's poetic rendering of two runes from the Kalevala.
~ Three found poems by Autumn Richardson, derived from the journals of Knud Rasmussen.
~ Richard Skelton's interview with his father about life on a Nottinghamshire farm in the 1940s and 1950s.
~ A folkloric and literary survey by Mark Valentine on 'The Last Wolf in England'.
~ A hitherto undocumented ritual performed in rural France, written in French, Occitan and English.
~ Excerpts from the forthcoming Epidote Press book on the writing of Hans Jürgen von der Wense.

In addition to these there are: Michael Drayton's poetic account of the plunder of the forest of Andredsweld; Leo Grindon on the oak and the insects it supports; Gerard Manley Hopkins' fragments on 'the law of the oak leaf', and the maiming of trees; W.H. Hudson's contemplation his eternal dwelling place; Thomas Keightley's account of 'green children'; Mary Russell Mitford's description of the 'murder' of magnificent oaks by woodsmen; a collection of Chippewa plant remedies as documented by Albert B. Reagan; Charles Hamilton Smith on wolves and the sentiment of affection; Edward Thomas' strange and beautiful exploration of the English folkloric archetype, 'Lob', his visionary 'leaving' of London, and his elegy for the badger, 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts'; H.D. Thoreau on nature and art; Gilbert White's account of the destruction of the 'Raven-Tree'; W.B. Yeats on the Celtic element in literature, and Egerton Ryerson Young's transcription of an Algonquin story of how the coyote obtained fire from the centre of the earth.

Order the 2014 issue here and see information on last year's here.


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Of idle days afoot in England and Patagonia






A new addition to my reading pile is Afoot in England by W.H. Hudson, perhaps the least heralded member of a loose triumvirate of pioneering writers on the natural history, landscape and rural way of life of Southern England alongside Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas; influential ever since, particularly on the work of Robert Macfarlane who provides a foreword to the book that has whetted my appetite with its talk of the ‘deep-English supernaturalism’ and ‘pastoral psychogeography’ contained within.




Little Toller Books have re-published A Shepherd's Life, Hudson's story of a shepherd grazing his flocks on the borders of Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset. Here is their summary of his life and work:

"W.H. HUDSON (1841 – 1922) William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina, son of Anglo-American settlers. As a youth he spent much time wandering alone in the Pampas, studying its wildlife and encountering gauchos, whose nomadic, shepherding life left a deep impression. In 1869 he moved to England, settling first in London where he lived in poverty until the award of a Civil List pension in 1901. Success finally came with a novel, Green Mansions (1904), but he is best known for A Shepherd’s Life (1910), his ornithological writings, and an autobiographical memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918). He was also a pioneering conservationist and a founding member of the RSPB. He is buried in Worthing, West Sussex, in the same cemetery as Richard Jefferies. He is a national literary treasure in Argentina, where several public institutions and a town are named after him."

I first came across Hudson whilst looking for local writings in a bookshop in Ushuaia, the southern-most city of Argentina, where I happened upon the superbly named Idle Days In Patagonia in which the author describes the minutiae of the natural history encountered during his wanderings across the vast expanses of the Patagonian plains and Andean foothills. It was captivating reading whilst travelling across this landscape, but little did I then know of his prodigious output of novels and non-fiction and closer to home observations. A pioneer walker-philosopher chronicling a world and a landscape that now seem distant beyond years.  

The last words to Hudson from Afoot in England: "In walking ... there are alleviations which may be more to us than positive pleasures, and scenes to delight the eye that are missed by the wheelman in his haste, or but dimly seen or vaguely surmised in passing - green refreshing nooks and crystal streamlets, and shadowey woodland depths with glimpses of a blue sky beyond - all in the wilderness of the human heart".