Friday, May 27, 2011

Imperfect friends

Yesterday, I passed a tree down in a meadow; a tall field oak, a victim of the recent gales.  Within the splintered wound I could see the rottenness at the core; an invisible weakness exploited by the unforgiving wind.  It is painful, to see hundred-year-old trees felled in a day of wind.  I remembered the national outpouring of grief following the great gales in southern England in 1987. Remembered also our own local losses in recent storms; woods where we have walked and played, which hold memories of friends and family.
The day before, I had walked in an oak wood freshly scattered with bluebells.  Early pignuts appeared between the bramble and bracken.  Nuthatches chacked between the mustardy green of the foliage.  It should have been a scene of complete peace and calm, and yet, as always when in unknown woods, there was that edge of unease, an almost primeval anxiety which lurks just out of the edge of vision.
Our relationship with trees, and with woods (the two not always being the same) is an ambivalent one; they are the places which, historically, have provided us with shelter and nutrition; safety from the weather and ample hunting, good foraging too, on days when the deer were elusive.  They have also been, however, the source of our predators and fears, the home of wolves and bears, the hiding places for attacking tribes.  These two poles have marked our relationship with woods since we first travelled north to these temperate lands; a relationship so neatly captured in Edward Thomas’ poem The Chalk Pit:
“Here, in fact, is nothing at all
Except a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us – imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us still we breed a mystery”
The fear of the woods is the primordial fear which comes to us in the dark night.  It is the irrational fear of unseen places which makes us constantly turn round when we face inwards to the camp fire.  Its roots are in the same sibling connection which creates that sense of home when we step into big woods, and which feels pain at the loss of big trees.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Landscape and memory

We are standing on the slopes above the Newlands valley, my sons and I.  It is May, and the days of rain and gales have given way to a brief interlude of sun, although the wind still drives towering cumulus over the top of the fells.  Across the valley, above the farm at Keskadale, the dusty green fuzz of an oak wood drapes the hillside, nestled into the dried-blood colour of the heather.
This woodland is a relic; one of the few surviving patches of truly native oak wood in Cumbria.  It has weathered the middle ages frenzy of deforestation, the enclosure act, the charcoal burners and coppicers. Within that wood is a memory of how the fells might have looked a thousand years ago, the denser oak and ash woods of the valley giving way to scrubbier oaks mixed with birch and hawthorn on the higher slopes.

Below our feet as we turn to follow the miners’ path upwards are other woodland relics.  The bilberries, whose young leaves are edged with the wine-red berry colour, and whose fairy-lantern flowers mimic perfectly the shape of the berries, hold within them the promise of all that they will become later in the summer.  Wood sorrel, smaller and less vivid than its woodland cousins, hangs its leaves in expectation of warmth.  It is not uncommon on these fells to find wood anemone or bluebells, emerging startled and cowering, amongst the grass and sedge. 
We cross the ridge in gusts of May-madness wind, the lake below us stirred by the squalls like a field of wheat.  Below the col, on a shoulder of land overlooking the lake, a sheepfold squats among the bracken, its lichenous walls furred with parsley fern.  We traverse the hillside and hunker into its shelter, listening for ghosts;  the echoes of previous generations of sheep, the footsteps of shepherds who would have used this place once or twice a year for gathering and shearing.  It is a relic of the changing landscape, like the wood anemones, the bilberries, the miners’ paths and the trees which cling to crags and gullies, throwing their blossom to the stiff May winds.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dark Summers

Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed ? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery ; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquiries.
From Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Whilst April was the month of unseasonal heat and an absence of rain, May has become the month of drizzle and damp.  The rain soughs from the eaves onto sodden lawns.  We can spend days not seeing the hills.
The year is seeming to follow the pattern of previous ones: a summer-like spell of weather arrives earlier than usual, followed by a dark and wet July and August.  They have become a season of cancelled picnics and cricket matches, lending a sense that the world is changing in ways too subtle and complex for us to understand.
It was on one of these damp summer days that I first visited the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere.  The hills disappeared into formless mist above the viridian woods.  One of the centre staff showed us round, pointing out some of the treasures and oddities of this remarkable collection.  The building is beautiful: light, airy and calm.  Of that day, however, I remember little except for the slim and unassuming first edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. 

In my memory, the air in the room chilled as the book was opened.  The silence seem palpable, laden with memory and meaning.  I could smell the nutmeg-and-sawdust odour of old books.  I imagined all those words pressed inside for years like antique butterflies; of how they would take flight when the pages were opened, rising dizzily into the damp summer air.
I like to imagine Mary Shelley delivering the manuscript to her publisher with that mixture of fear and pride.  I imagine her checking the proofs, which would have looked just like the edition laid on the polished ash table in front of us; the same typeface, the same paper.  The most famous child of that famous summer.   
The birth of the novel is well-known: the Shelleys are trapped inside the Villa Diodati with Byron and Polidori during the long, cold summer of 1816.  It became known as the ‘year without a summer’ following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year.  In the words of Mary Shelley, ‘in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands.’  Those stories spawned Frankenstein, which was first published anonymously in 1818.
It is interesting to me how the promethean myth runs through the book; the unleashing of the terrible knowledge which cannot be un-known.  It is a parable for our age; the scientific advances which seem to make our lives easier, cleaner, safer, whilst the invidious chemicals, the carbon from which our fragile lives are constructed, accumulates in the atmosphere.
The romatic poets were writing at the end of the beginning, in the period between the enlightenment and the industrial revolution; after the knowledge, but before its application.  The fire had been handed down from the gods, but they were not yet burned by it.
Perhaps Byron understood this.  Torn between the traditional demands of his title and status, and his bohemian attachment to the romantic movement, poems of his from the dark summer echo similar themes.  It is said that he finished The Prisoner of Chillon in one single night, its insistent rhythm eerily predicting the story of our destructive relationship with scientific progress:
‘My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: - even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.’
We become inured to the strange weather events which bring us drought and floods, cold winters and wet summers.  We try to make sense of the patterns, but they are too big for us, they will only be understood in hindsight, like the crop failures and summer hailstorms of 1816.  We believe we are making progress, but like Prometheus we are chained to the rocks, thoughtlessly pecking out our own eyes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Amor Loci

I could draw its map by heart,
showing its contours,
strata and vegetation
name every height,
small burn and lonely sheiling...
WH Auden: Amor Loci

I remembered a visit to an old slate quarry in North Wales, some twenty years ago.  Mosses draped thick over the piles of slate, clothing walls in a formless green.  Ferns had pushed through the floors of old buildings, overhung with self-seeded sycamore and rowan.  The air held a chill dampness, despite the warmth of a summer day beyond.
We stepped into a building which would once have been the forge.  In addition to being essential to the working life of the quarry, making tools and hoists and pins, it would also have been the centre of gossip and friendliness, a chance to warm scarred hands by the fire and talk.  And my guide pondered how those conversations would have echoed off the walls, endlessly reverberating between the slates, so that even now an inaudible echo of the words is still held in the air, captured and timeless.
I remembered this because I recently walked through Wescoe.  A hamlet barely, more a cluster of farm cottages perched on the side of a fell, a narrow lane which leads to nowhere in particular.  The hedgerows are thick with stitchwort and foxglove.  A few tall ash trees whisper of winter’s winds.
In the 1920s and 30s, it was regularly visited by WH Auden. His family had a cottage here, used for christmas and summer holidays.  He would hole up here as a refuge from the unhappiness of public school, a chance to write his early poetry, his verses full of the imagery of his imagined north; a land of stone quarries and ancient stones, of daring trips made by groups of young men across the moors at night.  There is a picture of him from this time, leaning against a slate wall, the fedora and pipe disguising his youth.

By the late 1930s, he would spend isolated new year holidays here with Christopher Isherwood.  We can imagine the intensity of their conversations around the fire, their youth and passion and sense of otherness, set against the darkening cloud which was massing over Europe.  Isherwood had not long returned from Berlin; he was more aware than most of the gathering storm. 
In 1938, Auden and Isherwood left for America.  The family sold the cottage at Wescoe after the parents’ death in 1948.  It is said that Auden kept a map of the north Pennines above the desk in his study. His later writings allude again and again to these northern moorlands, a form of memory in exile, as though tracing a map of his youth.
Passing through Wescoe now, there is no sign, no blue plaque.  Only the few atoms rubbed from the sleeve of a young man leaning against a door, and those late-night conversations echoing between the walls.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Westwards, towards the coast, lies a piece of thin land, spilling from the edges of an opencast coal mine.  The locals call this area the ‘Potato Pot’; its name possibly rooted in the history of Irish immigrants who came to west Cumbria to work the mines.  Before the mine, this area was called the Wythemoor, its name deriving from the witheys, or willow, which would have grown on this damp moorland.
Some years ago, when I regularly cycled this way, I would see a barn owl in the half-light of early morning, quartering the sedge with practiced patience.  The owl became my tutelary being: a reminder that all was well with the world.  I passed once again this week, for the first time in many years.  Now, there is no owl; perhaps it is already too late in the morning.  Perhaps it no longer lives here.
The fate of the barn owl in England is well documented.  The loss of ungrazed meadow has robbed the owls of the meadow voles which are their staple food; barn owls are famously picky eaters.  At the same time, road deaths account for an estimated third of all barn owl deaths each year, as the owls turn to verges and road cuttings for their hunting.  As a statistic, it is an appalling loss of biodiversity. 
Perhaps more painful, however, is the imagined loss of individual owls, like the one at Potato Pot.  In its absence this week, my mind shrinks from the image of its ghostly wings pressed to the tarmac, robbed of the memory of flight.

Friday, May 13, 2011


This year, they were early.  For days I have watched the skies at the edge of my vision; in the garden, at work, in the street, I expect to see the half-remembered, half-forgotten flicker of movement that tells me that spring has arrived. 

The familiar birds practice routines burned into their ritual memory.  Blackbirds find new nesting sites in hedges, in rose bushes, in the gnarled limbs of old clematis.  Lapwings twist against the blue like children’s kites slipped loose from control, sharing the lush sedge with the purposeful trill of the curlew.  The sand martins had taken up residence in their familiar earthen banks as if to taunt and fool us.  And still there were no swallows.
And then, as I step into the garden one evening, they are there; wheeling crazily in the evening sky like children released from school.  They pause briefly on the telephone wires like crotchets on a stave and then they are away again, slipping across the air mercury-quick and fluid, as random and poetic as the water in a mountain stream.
There is no flight like that of the swallow.  Not the shrill higher-and-higher loftiness of the skylark, not the effortless insouciance of the buzzard or the frantic skitter of the homebound thrush.  Immune to gravity, they dance.
For five months these tiny birds, as familiar as spring, as exotic as Africa, will spiral and twist in our Cumbrian skies as though the air was created for them alone.  And then, one day, an ancient memory will tug in the compass of their brains.  Silently they will dream their impatient dreams of the south and feel the restlessness of movement in their evening hunting.  On a September day when the sky is scarred with cloud we will wake to find them gone; the parentheses of our summer will have closed.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Because handwriting is not yet extinct

I make books.  The techniques, the methods, the careful folding and stitching and glueing, would be familiar to a sixteenth century monk.  My roll of tools resembles a travelling apothecary’s kit from a forgotten culture.
I make books for the feel and texture of the paper, the heft of buckram and cartridge.  I love the joy of transforming old maps or musical scores into quirky covers.
But also, I make books because they are a fundamental element of our culture, transferable, recognisable, egalitarian.  Douglas Adams claimed that ‘Books are sharks’; that is, they have reached a level of evolutionary perfection that cannot be bettered.

Notebooks and journals encourage the art of handwriting.  In a culture which is collectively forgetting the feel of a soft pencil on a crisply sized page, handwriting becomes a runic script from a forgotten age.  The significant difference between handwriting and typed script is that the former retains the indelible evidence of the soul of the writer, in the same way that we can imagine a room to contain the exhaled atoms of our friends or lovers.  I think of the final entry in Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic journal, on view at the British Library, his spidery handwriting becoming fainter, weaker as he nears his end.  The solemn finality of those words ‘for god’s sake look after our people.’
In the WB Yeats museum in Dublin, I recall the small index card, some four inches by two, on which he wrote the first draft of He wishes for the cloths of heaven.  It was an electrifying moment, seeing the impress of the unsharpened pencil, the image of his long fringe flopping over his rounded spectacles as he squeezed such emotion and meaning from eight short lines.  A reminder that handwriting represents a kinaesthetic link with the writer, a direct expression of thought preserved on the page.
I make books because handwriting is not yet extinct.

The rite of spring

...And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the spring.
Henry Reed, 'Lessons of the War'
My mind was distracted elsewhere during April, and spring began.  The earliest of the hedgerow flowers had passed so briefly; violets so delicate they sag under their own weight, the primroses like spilt pools of sunlight, celandines butter-thick amongst the unravelling ferns.  As the fields filled with ladies' smock, I began to wonder about spring's signature moments; those arrivals which herald the change of the seasons.

The idea of spring messengers is implicit in the importance of the first cuckoo, and the transposable name of 'cuckoo flower' for a number of spring blooms, but I fancy that each of us has our own spring harbingers.  Amongst mine are the first curlew, trilling across the greening fields, or the wood anemones which brighten the woodland floor.  I also experience a small internal lift at the sight of cowslips, or trefoil on the hills, or skylarks lifting from dry grass.  Not forgetting, of course, the arrival of swallows and willow warblers, the unrolling of hawthorn leaves like children's hands, or the display flights of lapwings.
Of all these annual pleasures, the appearance of the may blossom is as sure a sign as any that spring has arrived, its blowsy scent filling the hedgerows.  'Ne'er cast a clout till may is out' is more true of the flower than the month, and Richard Mabey suggests that many of our spring fertility festivals which incorporate hawthorn (such as maypole-dancing) are based on its associations with illicit outdoor trysting.  We know that winter has passed when we can stay outdoors without the compulsion to move to keep warm.  Perhaps the true test of spring is the sense that we can live outside again.