My journey this Spring has been rich. I have walked in the company of luminaries: the great Seamus Heaney, the titanic William Wordsworth, and the jocular and erudite Walter Starkie, whose several pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela were as much about the wine and song he enjoyed along the way as about the life and times of the saint the popularity of whose tomb is once again on the rise.
Our home sits on the Konstanz-to-Rapperswil section of the Jacobean Way, and in the last few weeks we have spotted the first of the season’s pilgrims, two young women marching vigorously West with scallop shells stitched to their rucksacks. It was still morning, and we have since discovered that a farm up the road offers shelter to Jacobean foot-sloggers, as Starkie fondly calls them. They can’t have been on the road for more than twenty minutes.
...discrete field azure and scallop or on a fence-post announce centuries of patient foot-fall ticking off the miles to a distant tomb at world's end, Finisterre, a shoreline of broken soles and empty shells shriven at last of all that is attempted, worn boots pointing West to the distant line of convergence where mystery and meaning meet, summoning us to our greatest journey...
Spring sometimes cloaks itself in cloud and misty drizzle, and today was one such day. I celebrated with a walk. From our home up to Hueb, then East along Jacob’s Way to the head of a grassy track below the hamlet of Büel. The track cuts down through old orchards, zigzagging across a line of marching electricity pylons that shed a humming cascade of static. The track strikes a stream above the main Jonatal road and leads you down a flight of steps into the middle of another collection of farmhouses.
South along Road 15, direction Wald. Cross the road at Jonatal, cross the Jona River, pass beneath the railway track, then climb steadily via Hischwil to the summit of Scheidegg, an ascent of 555 metres. The final stretch through the woods lining the base of the summit exposes my loss of form. I need to find my legs again, I tell myself as I haul myself up a weathered stairway of railway sleepers.
From Scheidegg I descend via Josenberg along the Schmittenbrunnen, arriving in Wald with four minutes to spare before the bus back to Dieterswil departs. The whole circuit takes about three-and-a-half hours.
Meadowsweet, nettle and dandelion nestle in the crook of a clotted root, a bark-stripped, thunder-stricken fir singled out for terrible violence while its cousins flourish all around.
The papery whine of a glider on the Scheidegg is reminiscent at a distance of the maniac clamour of a pig-farm at feeding-time; close up, just below the crest where the flier stands like a warrior-sentinel on the skyline wielding his remote control box, it becomes the wail of wind-devils dancing over lakes of ice.
The Inner Workshop and a Reflection on Poetry
Heaney responding to Wordsworth writing about poetry in The Prelude:
“…poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with an aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.”
– Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers, p.14
Just before waking this morning a word arose in my mind from invisible sources, springing like water through a sudden crack in the bedrock. It was a long, composite word, something like ‘bloodshed’, but close to me, meaningful in some undefined way. The word remained unclear, never quite completing its emergence, and I lost my grip on it almost immediately.
Its movement of revelation in my deep mind coincided with Shelly stirring beside me, throwing off her duvet and sitting up. Whatever groundswell it was that was forcing this dream-word into my consciousness was suddenly compounded by the nervous pressure exerted by Shelly waking up and moving. It was a perfect coming together of inner and outer forces which, combined, were able to overcome the counter-pressure of resistance exerted by my bodily substance. The word – this representation in the mind-body system of an extrinsic pressure – burst, and my body was flooded with delicious, warm energy. I tried in vain to recapture the word, but I quickly realised that was not possible, nor even the point. What I did have, and still feel residually, was a vitalised body-feeling, a sense of well-being coursing through my nervous system.
This could be one rendering of Heaney’s definition of poetry as a coming together of craft and technique. There is more to a poem than the base experience, of course: there are the words and the lines that materialise on the page. Writing itself may not be a sacred thing because it seeks, always imperfectly, to capture something of the special moment of lived experience where we come into contact with the Numen, the mysterious source of things. It is an essential transition point from the sacred to the mundane, not the holy reliquary, perhaps, but at least one bridge we can cross to get from the worldly back to the transcendent. Everything that goes into the building of it – all the craft, all the technique – has to be unique, hallowed, cherished, worshipped.
“Technique,” Heaney writes (‘Feeling Into Words,’ Finders Keepers, p.21), “ensures that the first gleam attains its proper effulgence.”
“The crucial action is pre-verbal, to be able to allow the first alertness or come-hither, sensed in a blurred or incomplete way, to dilate and approach as a thought or a theme or a phrase.”
Place is where so much that is pre-verbal is incubated. For Heaney, that was probably the water pump outside the back door at Mossbawn, Co. Derry, in the early 1940s, its up-down-up-down-up-down action as someone drew water becoming the rounded music of omphalos-omphalos-omphalos, such an insistent marking of the centre-stone of one’s world.
“That pump marked an original descent into earth, made its foundation the foundation of the omphalos itself.” (p.6)
The place rooted in the earth that anchors the imagination is not just a centre, it is also its marches, those Grendel-places where fear lurks under rocks and children are initiated into the darker mysteries of life:
“We’d heard about a mystery man who’d haunted the fringes of the bog here, we talked about mankeepers and mosscheepers, creatures uncatalogued by any naturalist, but none the less real for that. What was a mosscheeper, anyway, if not the soft, malicious sound the word itself made, a siren coaxing you out towards bog pools lidded with innocent grass, quicksands and quagmires? They were all there and spreading out over a low, birch-screened apron of land towards the shores of Lough Beg.” (p.4)
Morsch (Ger.), adj., rotten, brittle [bones], crumbling [rock, masonry]
My bogey-man inhabited an abandoned hut of ‘morshy’ concrete half-hidden among ferns and nettles on the wooded fringe of Buttercup Meadow, Old Catton, Norwich. We’d heard that someone had been murdered there some years before, but I sensed it was a place where members of the chthonian tribe we referred to as ‘the Mods’, whom we were in open and perpetual conflict with, injected themselves with strange substances and performed perverse acts with one another.
In time, my Lough Beg became the open road, the place where, as described by Jordan Peterson in one of his Cambridge lectures, I turn to face the source of my own ignorance because there is no choice in the matter. It is what I have.
In my own writing I am always reaching for the experience of a pilgrim’s sense of the road, in actuality or emblematically, and perennially haunted by the loss of connection with landscape. In I Saw Wolf the loss of contact with landscape corresponds to the loss of landscape itself, of that space in human consciousness that for thousands of years has been tended by a silent, rural majority. This majority has been systematically murdered and dispossessed by the metropolitan elites, and the fertile orchards I remember as a child growing up in Italy are now being reclaimed by forest. As true knowledge dies, so the process of dispossession of the land picks up pace.
I Saw Wolf I saw wolf, she said, sitting in the garden, watching. I saw, too, said the other, wolves on the road running, up into the forest. Pig-feet leaver root and rock, snouts grub snails, night fills with suid snuffling like a coming of forest gods breaking back through morshy march-lines. Badger has been among my grape hyacinths, eating bulbs, she said: we came when the forest was silent, but I remember scorpion in a trouser-leg, on the pillow, sandfly that laid father low for a fortnight: that was what we knew then of the quietened wild. Now, though, adder is back, dog is slain, Now wolf watches from the treeline again. I walk, I see weltering understory, clambering bramble, woodland pioneer, ivy and old man’s beard strangle the bones of yesteryear’s labour. I hear a thousand indentured seasons reach out with cracked and careful hands, supplicant and accusatory fingers that eked the secret fee of knowledge from a land too harsh for our minds to grasp tracing their tale of Nature unmuzzled, whilst we fret behind masks, driven to dissidence at needlepoint. They show us tooth-marks we have lost The art to read, the cruel rake of a living torn from the sod, while we give ours up, submit again to the shameful lie that this clod of clay is not enough. We are nature now, the cleared and hunted ones whose free secret lives will lose their free and secret life, leave the forests silent for a thousand seasons more but for those beseeching limbs asking, asking Voltaire’s killer question: who are you to assume that God would not make matter intelligent? That free will is over because you decide it so? Where the staunch stewards now, I know not. I spied one the other day, Guido Angiolini, aged beyond his ninety years, patriarch among cars and calls, the conversations of younger generations, the tempered-steel focus honed to a gleam, and the keen trim of a borsalino hat trained along the line of a boxwood twice as tall as he, the age-old inspection for tell-tale signs of rot at root and collar, the light lie of spring green presaging charnel hellscapes under pale shrouds of frass, as he held and gently questioned the leaves: what ails you today, my love?