Friday, 25 January 2013

Finding wildness: places to be left alone with yourself

A common leitmotif of writings and commentary on landscapes - both urban and rural - is that wildness, and nature itself, is on the retreat; clinging on in only a few hard to find redoubts. Received wisdom has it that in crowded overdeveloped Britain, and particularly in England, wild, little visited places are 'increasingly' hard to find: there is no escape from the all-pervasive noise, speed and stress of the man-made technologies that we have created. We are now enslaved by the forces that have also impoverished our environment. Rachel Carson's prophecy of a Silent Spring has come to pass, with absent natural sound replaced by the pandaemonium of the machine age.
"Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation, science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no cave in which to curl up, and no deserted valley." E.M. Forster
"...that cavernous, deadened heart of south England which now runs more or less uninterrupted from Norwich all the way to Bristol." Mark Cocker
"This is one of the few places left in England where you can actually open your ears and listen. Everyday we are bombarded by sound and noise, but so rarely have the opportunity of really listening." Chris Watson
Even Robert Macfarlane, in his generally uplifting paean to The Wild Places, gives the impression that only a skilled landscape horse-whisperer such as he is able to locate special places of wildness:
"The losses to the wild places of Britain and Ireland were unignorable, and the threats that they faced - pollution, climate change - appeared greater in number and vigour than ever before. But I knew that the wildness had not entirely vanished."
The credo of exclusivity and a diminishing stock of remote places is taken up by Christopher Walton:
"Even in England there are still places where it is possible to feel as if you are the first to stand there. These places are few and far between, lost deep in the hills where nobody ever goes, or hemmed in by humming railway lines; but if you look will find them."

What puzzles me about much fine writing on landscape, as illustrated above, is that it seems to ignore or be in denial of a simple truth: remote places are all around and do not require arcane or esoteric knowledge in order to be enjoyed; just a map and a bit of curiosity. Maybe celebrating the remarkable, diverse and accessible geography within our midst is too far from the overriding narrative of shrinking biodiversity, ruptured ecosystems, climate change and urbanisation; fiddling while Rome burns.

My contention would be that if people feel that wildness has gone, been corralled into carefully stage managed nature ghetto's or is simply out of bounds, then how can we ever expect them to feel a sense of value for the areas of natural tranquility and beauty that surround them? And, by extension, feel a personal - rather than abstract - stake in pulling back from the pillage of the planet's natural resources? 

So here is a gently dissenting voice; a hosanna to exploring and revisiting special places:
"On springy heath, along the hill-top edge/ Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance/ To that still roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep/ And only speckled by the midday sun." This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, 14 January 2013

Pandaemonium begins

Fine map that neatly shows the (literal) powerhouses and important landmarks of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

And, as an accompanying piece, Humphrey Jennings' Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers is an absolute treasure trove of writings on the 'sturm und drang' of the coming of the industrial age.

Thanks to Matthew Ward for the image, from "an old text book".

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Mapping the Old Straight Tracks

Ley lines are not for me as a credible theory but, like ghost stories and other esoteric and arcane ideas, for a rationale observer who is open to a bit of subversion they hold an undoubted appeal. Alfred Watkin's Old Straight Track is a lovely book and a topographically detailed description of the places and sites the book covers. And the maps of the ancient landscape around Glastonbury shown here (beautifully produced by Palden Jenkins) are certainly striking, with an alluring dissonance between the seemingly rational geometry of the ley lines and the more organic and messy reality of the physical and historical topography.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Dial Garreg: A story of stone

Dial Garreg: the Revenge Stone.

The remains of the cross commemorating the murder of Richard de Clare, Marcher Lord, in 1136.

In 1136 Richard had been away from his lordship in the early part of the year. He returned to the borders of Wales via Hereford in the company of Brian Fitz Count, but on their separating, Richard ignored warnings of the danger and pressed on toward Ceredigion with only a small force. He had not gone far when on 15 April he was ambushed and killed by the men of Gwent under Iorwerth ab Owain and his brother Morgan, grandsons of Caradog ap Gruffydd, in a woody tract called "the ill-way of Coed Grano", near Llanthony Abbey, north of Abergavenny. Today the spot is marked by the 'garreg dial' (the stone of revenge). Wikipedia.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A midwinter hand-list

The Leaping Hare

Its the time of year when my pile of 'on the go' and 'to read' books reaches a critical mass, boosted by Christmas presents; a tipping point from which I will not be able to catch-up, but will enjoy trying.

Currently sustaining me through the winter months are:

J.A. Baker's The Peregrine; a hawk-eyed and visceral account of bird, man and landscape.
Nature Cure by Richard Mabey
Richard Mabey's Nature Cure muses far and wide in chronicling his personal resurrection from depression through a reconnection with the natural world.
Pandaemonium By: Humphrey Jennings
Humphrey Jennings Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers is an eccentric miscellany of reportage and opinion on the seismic shift caused by Britain's Industrial Revolution; and part inspiration for London's Olympic Opening Ceremony.

And for dipping into on a stormy night, The Oxford Book of  English Ghost Stories (Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, Eds.).

I'm also particularly looking forward to:

After London - Richard Jefferies 

Dark Mountain Issue 3 - Various

Headwaters: Walking to British river sources - Phil Clayton

Land of Lost Content: The Luddite revolt, 1812 - Robert Reid 

The Art of Wandering: The writer as walker - Merlin Coverley

The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

The English Lakes: A history - Ian Thompson

The Great God Pan - Arthur Machen

The Leaping Hare - George Ewart Evans and David Thomson

The Living Mountain - Nan Shepherd
Who I Am - Pete Townsend

Why Willows Weep: Contemporary tales from the woods -

Wolf Solent - John Cowper Powys
 And with no plans to re-boot to a Kindle, the house will continue to be populated with erratic-like piles of books awaiting discovery.