Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Falling Upwards

Our balloon ride over the Garrotxa

Whilst in Spain last month we took to the air in a balloon.  I also read Richard Holmes' entertaining history of nineteenth century ballooning, Falling Upwards, which included some details that reminded me of our flight over the volcanic landscape of Garrotxa.  Holmes describes an ascent made by the leading Victorian balloonist Charles Green, accompanied by a wealthy MP and an Irish musician, Monck Mason, who wrote the trip up as Aeronautica (1838).  They set off in the Royal Vauxhall from London on a November afternoon in 1836 and by dusk they were over the Channel and tucking into ‘a huge meal of cold meats and wine’.  I smiled on reading this as it was exactly what we were given to tuck into after we landed.  Whilst aloft we toasted the flight with a glass of pink cava.  Champagne drinking seems to have been de riguer on most nineteenth century balloon trips, although Monck Mason claimed that the lower pressure at altitude made it too frothy, shooting from the bottle and ‘revealing what he called its "natural tendency to flying".  Perhaps under the influence of these refreshments, the landscapes of northern France seen after dusk, with isolated points of candlelight "burning late" in the villages below, seemed infinitely romantic and mysterious.’


Above the Garrotxa we were flying over winding rivers, terracotta-tiled farm buildings and the densely wooded slopes of extinct volcanoes, but it was impossible not to register too the motorway network, ribbon developments and light industrial buildings on the outskirts of every sizable settlement.  Holmes recounts how, when the Royal Vauxhall reached the Meuse, the crew were astonished to realise that the great industrial complex visible below them was the historic city of Liège.  Its surrounding districts "appeared to blaze with innumerable fires … to the full extent of our visible horizon."  At the height we were flying we could not hear the sounds of industry below - perhaps it is relatively silent these days.  Holmes describes what the balloonists could hear as they passed over Liège: 'disembodied shouting, coughing, swearing, metallic banging and sometimes, weirdly, sharp echoing bursts of laughter.  They were being granted a unique, nightmare vision of the new industrial future, a world of ever extending ironworks, where every street was "marked out by its particular line of fires."’

The Royal Vauxhall continued into the night.  "Occasional faint flashes of lightning would for an instant illuminate the horizon ... Not a single object of terrestrial nature could anywhere be distinguished; an unfathomable abyss of 'darkness visible' seemed to encompass us on every turn." 
Holmes observes that Mason's description of night's "cold and dark embrace", like "an immense block of black marble", might have come from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story 'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall' appeared the year before this flight, and who went on to feature Green and Monck in his newspaper hoax 'The Atlantic Balloon' in 1844.  Eventually the aeronauts recognised the Rhine but continued eastwards and by morning thought they might have reached "the barren and inhospitable Steppes of Russia".  In fact they finally landed in some north German fir trees.  Our balloon flight looked at one point like it might end in some trees too, or even on a small traffic island, but we eventually touched down smoothly on some rocky ground and once the balloon had been furled and loaded onto its trailer we set off back to enjoy our botifarra.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Green Ray

'In America they call it the green flash. When the sun sets, in a very clear horizon, with no land mass for many hundreds of miles, and no moisture or atmospheric pressure, you have a good chance of seeing it. The slowest ray is the blue ray, which comes across as green when the sun sets in perfect atmospheric conditions. It’s the last ray as the sun recedes with the curvature of the earth.' - Tacita Dean, Bomb Magazine, 2006

Still from one of several videos of the phenomenon that have been 
uploaded to YouTube, this one by Noel Barlau

The quote above comes from a conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, who briefly refers to the green ray in his novel Middlesex...  “They say you can’t take a picture of a green ray, but I got one. I always keep a camera in the cab in case I come across some mind-blowing shit like that. And one time I saw this green ray and I grabbed my camera and I got it.”  In the interview Eugenides asks Tacita Dean about the elusiveness of the phenomenon in her film The Green Ray.  "I think you said that you got the green ray in the film, but it never appears in any single frame. But you can see it momentarily when the film is running. Is that right?"  "Yes. The film is 24 frames a second but you can’t isolate a single frame that has it.  He goes on to ask her whether everybody sees the green ray when they see the film.  "No. That’s what’s nice about it, because otherwise the film would just be about a phenomenon. But in the end it’s more about perception and faith, I think."

From Tacita Dean's video, The Green Ray (2001)

I first heard of the green ray when Eric Rohmer's beautiful film was released in 1986.  Delphine, alone on her summer holiday and nervous of any new intimacy after a split with her boyfriend, overhears a group discussing a novel by Jules Verne, The Green Ray (1882).  One of them says that "when you see the green ray you can read your own feelings and others too."  Later she sees a beach cafe named Le Rayon Vert and at the end of the film, when she finally meets an appealing young man (they both like Dostoyevsky), she asks him to sit with her and watch the sunset over the sea.  What follows is, according to Gilbert Adair in his book about the first century of cinema, Flickers, 'the tiniest and most moving special effect in the history of cinema.'  Tacita Dean was less impressed: "it’s very heavy-handed; it’s like this huge, green thing. I mean, the real green ray makes your heart miss a beat, because you look, you look, you look. And then you see it so suddenly, and it’s gone. Somehow rapidity is part of its beauty."

From Eric Rohmer's film, The Green Ray (1986)

I have not read Verne's novel and it is hard to find any reviews that wholeheartedly recommend it - see for example the description on with hidden noise: 'as fiction it is sorely disappointing'.  In Jules Verne, Geography and Nineteenth Century Scotland, Ian B. Thompson describes it as the slightest of his three Scottish novels; however, it is informed by Verne's 'passion for sea travel and is meticulous in the nautical, meteorological and geographical detail of the journey.'  At the climax of the story the two lovers, having repeatedly failed to glimpse a green ray, miss seeing it because they only have eyes for each other.  Verne was clearly fascinated by the idea - in an impressive Annotated bibliography of mirages, green flashes, atmospheric refraction, etc., Andrew T. Young refers to an earlier mention of the green ray in Verne's novel Les Indes Noires (1877).  This is the earliest fictional reference in the bibliography, but the phenomenon was noted by other nineteenth century writers, like J. A. Froud, whose account of a voyage to South Africa describes a sunset on 'the sea calm as Torbay in stillest summer ... The disk, as it touched the horizon, was deep crimson. As the last edge of the rim disappeared there came a flash, lasting for a second, of dazzling green - the creation I suppose of my own eyes.'

I will end here with another art form, music.  Gavin Bryars has described witnessing the green ray in Southern California, but his 1991 composition refers back to the setting for Verne's novel.  'This part of Western Scotland is also the place where certain piping traditions originated. Male pipers practised in one cave on the seashore, females in another ( the "piper's cave" and the "pigeon's cave"). As they played their laments at twilight a triangulation, similar to that in the Verne story (male-ray-female) may well have occurred without the knowledge of the innocent participants, hence the sequence of simultaneous laments in the coda.'   The clip below is the first half of The Green Ray - I can't find anything to embed that includes the coda, with its laments for saxophone, cor anglais, French horn, and solo violin.  You can buy or hear the whole piece elsewhere of course, but perhaps it is appropriate to the theme that this should be left here to the imagination.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The landscape has an antique stillness

For the past week I have been immersed in the Catalan landscape described by Josep Pla in his remarkable book, The Gray Notebook.  The NYRB Classics site explains how it was written:
'In 1918, when Pla was in Barcelona studying law, the Spanish flu broke out, the university shut down, and he went home to his parents in coastal Palafrugell. Aspiring to be a writer, not a lawyer, he resolved to hone his style by keeping a journal. In it he wrote about his family, local characters, visits to cafés; the quips, quarrels, ambitions, and amours of his friends; writers he liked and writers he didn’t; and the long contemplative walks he would take in the countryside under magnificent skies. Returning to Barcelona to complete his studies, Pla kept up his diary, scrutinizing life in the big city with the same unflagging zest and humor. Pla, one of the great Catalan writers, held on to this youthful journal for close to fifty years, reworking and adding to it, until he finally published The Gray Notebook as both the first volume and the capstone of his collected works.' 
 
 Palafrugell, dawn, 21 August 2015

If you're interested in an overview there is a New York Times review; here I will of course focus on Pla's descriptions of landscape, illustrated with a couple of photographs I took.  To give you a flavour (it would be tedious to quote too much out of context), here he is on the afternoon of 7 May 1918, walking to his family's farm, admiring 'the white Pyrenees against an immense sky' and 'a swath of pink mist the colour of seashells, the mist off the sea in the gulf of Roses ...  The rain has refreshed the green of the pine groves and the fields of alfalfa.  Everything is bronzed and gleaming.  The wheat is about to shift from green to the white, golden foam of ripeness.  The small hills undulating on both sides of the landscape - parallel to the sea - are gently luminous, alive and graceful, like a sleeping, breathing nude.'

On a subsequent walk these hills are 'as firm as the breasts of an adolescent girl from these parts' - Pla was a bookish youth, too shy to form a relationship with a woman.  His friend and walking companion Joan B. Coromina advances the theory that ones interest in women 'is shaped by the suitability of the landscape in which she moves.  There are women for many landscapes, some women are right for only one, and some women for none at all.  When the fit is right, infatuation is guaranteed, automatic, inevitable.'  Later that year 'the vines are turning gold, the pinewoods wear a thick layer of dark green and the olive trees an airy silver-gray.  The stubble in the fields takes on a granulated, reddish tone.  The whole landscape could fit nicely between a pot of honey and a bottle of rum.'  However, Pla doesn't see much 'Dionysian sensuality' in all this - it is no place for 'garlands, cornucopias, and a warm Venus with a dainty head and huge buttocks strolling through a meadow surrounded by trees wreathed in mist.  Autumn here is rather serene, linear, and never harsh but somewhat languorous, inducing a vague, bitter melancholy.' 

 Pine trees, dawn, 21 August 2015

The Gray Notebook is over six hundred pages long and includes, in addition to descriptions of the countryside around Palafrugell, memorable passages on Girona in the rain and Barcelona, 'turtledove grey', laid out below him from the mountain of Montjuïc.  Re-reading some of these now I can see that they are often tinged with sadness, where for example a walk through waves of pine trees, an 'unbroken verdant sea', ends with a depressing encounter with a poor country priest (Coromina complains it "has spoiled the landscape and our stroll.  It seems incredible that such pretty countryside can contain so much wretchedness.")  I will end here though with an idyllic vision more in keeping with my holiday memories, from one of the stories Pla tells about local characters, in this case an easygoing shepherd.
'If it's hot, he lies under the soft, caressing rustle of the tall pines.  From the shade he watches the white, lathering, languid sea.  The horizon is blue and cool.  A seagull glides by flapping its wings.  The landscape has an antique stillness, at once benign and paternal.  If someone shouts, the wind carries the cry gently away.  Time passes, like a trickle of olive oil.'

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The Seven Wonders of the Peak


I've been reading A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe (3 vols, 1724-6), written whilst he was living at 'a very handsome house' just up the road from me here in Stoke Newington.  It is a very handsome edition,* published by Yale University Press in 1991 and illustrated with 319 contemporary engravings and watercolours, which set me back me just £4.95 in the little second hand bookshop a few yards from the Daniel Defoe Pub.   There is much I might say about it here but I want to focus on Defoe's travels in the Peak District at the beginning of Volume 3, because it reveals much about his no-nonsense attitude to landscape.  The earlier volumes covering London and the South and are full of descriptions of farming, commerce and trade, thriving market towns and expanding cities.  In Derbyshire he remains more fascinated with human activity and industry than the beauties of the scenery - coal and lead mining and the operation of a throwster's mill (for silk throwing), whose owner nearly came to grief once showing some friends his impressive water wheel.  And when his narrative eventually gets to the spectacular natural phenomena of The Peak, he goes out of his way to downplay them.

The first 'Wonder of the Peak' he dismisses is the baths at Buxton - 'nothing at all; nor is it any thing but what is frequent in such mountainous countries as this is, in many parts of the world.'  Next, at Poole's Hole, he observes that 'the wit that has been spent upon this vault or cave in the earth, had been well enough to raise the expectation of strangers, and bring fools a great way to creep into it.'  Earlier writers had gone over the top in their praise: 'Dr. Leigh spends some time in admiring the spangled roof. Cotton and Hobbes are most ridiculously and outrageously witty upon it. Dr. Leigh calls it fret work, organ, and choir work.'  But 'were any part of the roof or arch of this vault to be seen by a clear light, there would be no more beauty on it than on the back of a chimney; for, in short, the stone is coarse, slimy, with the constant wet, dirty and dull.'  A famous spring is 'a poor thing indeed to make a wonder of'; nor is The Devil's Arse all it has been cracked up to be (I referred to this cave here before in connection with Thomas Hobbes' book in praise of The Seven Wonders).  As for Mam Tor, 'the sum of the whole wonder is this, That there is a very high hill, nay, I will add (that I may make the most of the story, and that it may appear as much like a wonder as I can) an exceeding high hill. But this in a country which is all over hills, cannot be much of a wonder, because also there are several higher hills in the Peak than that, only not just there.'

Page from The Genuine Poetical Works of Charles Cotton (1741, written 1681)

But Defoe doesn't leave the Peak District without praising two of its sights, 'one a wonder of nature, the other of art.'  The extraordinary and mysterious Elden Hole is a 'frightful chasme' whose 'opening goes directly down perpendicular into the earth, and perhaps to the center. ... What Nature meant in leaving this window open into the infernal world, if the place lies that way, we cannot tell: But it must be said, there is something of horror upon the very imagination, when one does but look into it.'  And then, by contrast, there is the Duke of Devonshire's house at Chatsworth, whose beautiful new garden required some serious landscaping.  'To make a clear vista or prospect beyond into the flat country, towards Hardwick, another seat of the same owner, the duke, to whom what others thought impossible, was not only made practicable, but easy, removed, and perfectly carried away a great mountain that stood in the way, and which interrupted the prospect.'  The result is a house and garden that delight the traveller as a haven of civilisation in a wild place (an emotion I've always associated with Tolkien's Rivendell). 
'Nothing can be more surprising of its kind, than for a stranger coming from the north, suppose from Sheffield in Yorkshire, for that is the first town of note, and wandering or labouring to pass this difficult desert country, and seeing no end of it, and almost discouraged and beaten out with the fatigue of it, (just such was our case) on a sudden the guide brings him to this precipice, where he looks down from a frightful heighth, and a comfortless, barren, and, as he thought, endless moor, into the most delightful valley, with the most pleasant garden, and most beautiful palace in the world: If contraries illustrate, and the place can admit of any illustration, it must needs add to the splendor of the situation, and to the beauty of the building, and I must say (with which I will close my short observation) if there is any wonder in Chatsworth, it is, that any man who had a genius suitable to so magnificent a design, who could lay out the plan for such a house, and had a fund to support the charge, would build it in such a place where the mountains insult the clouds, intercept the sun, and would threaten, were earthquakes frequent here, to bury the very towns, much more the house, in their ruins.'
 J. Kip after L. Knyff, Birdseye View of Chatsworth House, c. 1707



* A reviewer for the London Review of Books felt this edition 'breathes an odour of ‘England’s Heritage’' and questions the way it has been abridged.  Nowadays it is of course possible to read the original unabridged version online.

'Keeping his eye rather upon what he pointed at with his fingers than what he stept upon with his feet, he stepp'd awry and slipt into the river.  He was so very close to the sluice which let the water out upon the wheel, and which was then pulled up, that tho' help was just at hand, there was no taking hold of him, till by the force of the water he was carried through, and pushed just under the large wheel, which was then going round at a great rate. The body being thus forc'd in between two of the plashers of the wheel, stopt the motion for a little while, till the water pushing hard to force its way, the plasher beyond him gave way and broke; upon which the wheel went again, and, like Jonah's whale, spewed him out, not upon dry land, but into that part they call the apron, and so to the mill-tail, where he was taken up, and received no hurt at all.'

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Frozen waves

A photo posted by marcquinnart (@marcquinnart) on

I've written here before about the way Modernism distanced itself from landscape painting and how Oscar Wilde could only look upon a sunset as a 'second-rate Turner'.  Over a hundred years later it is interesting to see the lengths Marc Quinn has gone to in his new exhibition The Toxic Sublime to turn  a Caribbean sunrise into art now that, as he says, “you can’t do sublime any more.  You can’t make a painting of nature.”  Having transferred the original photograph to a set of canvases he sanded them down and stuck on strips of 'aeronautical grade aluminium tape'.  Then he spray-painted them in the lurid colours of urban graffiti through templates of plastic chord and other rubbish collected from a beach.  Next he took them into the street and rubbed into them impressions of drain covers (the familiar words 'Thames Water').  I thought for a moment of the Situationists' 'beach beneath the street' but Quinn is referencing the way water is taken and controlled in the city.  Finally they were bonded to aluminium sheets and subjected to creasing and denting so that they look like they have been retrieved from some kind of wreckage.  In the photograph accompanying the Telegraph review they actually look rather beautiful and, although I have some sympathy for the Alastair Smart's view that they 'represent an awful lot of work for awfully little reward', I think he goes too far in likening them to crumpled crisp packets.

This White Cube exhibition also includes four Frozen Wave sculptures which are much easier to like (even though their shiny stainless steel surfaces reminded me uncomfortably of Jeff Koons' Rabbit.)  These are based on eroded shells, copied and cast at different scales, including one that has a whole room to itself and looks from the side like a small sperm whale.  As the curators explain, 'in the moment before they disappear and become sand, all conch shells end up in a similar form – an arch that looks like a wave, as though an unwitting self-portrait by nature.'  And it is remarkable how wave-like they look, with their rough surfaces and glassy-smooth undersides.  At the same time, the largest (23 feet long) might be a fragment of landscape, a silver sea cave, with the shells' exposed layers blown up to resemble surf-polished rock strata.  There are also two sculptures made from 3D-printed conch shells that seemed less interesting and more obvious.  There was no way of putting one of these to the ear, but look inside and their mirrored surfaces are like jets of water, recalling the surging currents and breaking waves that pick them up and sculpt them.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Toward the sea’s edge

Reading sad news this week of the death of Lee Harwood, I remembered an unfinished post I began a few years ago on one of his books and its inspiration, Raymond Roussel's poem, 'La Source'.  I will return to this shortly, but it seems fitting to say a few things first about Harwood's own landscape-related poetry.  According to the Poetry Archive, 'his work is ... as much in the traditions of John Clare and Wordsworth as the 20th century avant-garde poetics of DADA, the Black Mountain poets and the British Poetry Revival.'  He wrote of the Welsh mountains, the Northlands of Canada, the coast of California and the Sussex landscape in and around Brighton, where he mainly lived from 1967 (I wonder whether, growing up in Brighton, I ever encountered him there in his day jobs as a postal clerk or bus conductor).  His verse was embedded with intriguing and eclectic cultural references (such as Roussel) and often took inspiration from specific paintings.  In an Argotist interview he said, 'I hope my work isn’t full of art references, but equally it would be stupid to believe that we’re some kind of Gary Snyder backwoodsman and that we never listen to music or look at paintings or read difficult books. That’s part of life too.'  He would have enjoyed the Royal Academy's Joseph Cornell exhibition, which I visited with two poet friends last week.  In his poem ‘Days and Nights: Accidental Sightings', Harwood wrote 'A Bundle of 50 Sticks For Joseph Cornell and Others’. This is the last one:
The white box contains a landscape – bare branches, a night sky
set with stars, a window, a figure, curious objects.
We look in from outside.


The photo above shows the title page of a short collection called simply Landscapes that Harwood published in 1969.  The poems do not have precise locations and places are remembered only haltingly.  In ‘Question of geography’ he half recalls somewhere, ‘green     a rich brown     as the sun shone / turned to slate grey     at times a soft blue smudge/ with dusk or rain clouds     the detail obscured.’  These broad strokes remind me of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, slowly worked on over the years whilst memories become overlaid and blurred. ‘You paint over the picture & start on / the new one     but all the same it’s still there beneath the fresh plains of colour.’ Several poems in this book are ‘for Marian’ and sometimes the loved body and the landscape fuse: ‘When the sea is as grey as her eyes / On these days for sure     the soft white / mist blown in from the ocean     the town dissolving / It all adds up     her bare shoulders…’  He writes about painting out in the landscape but can sound weary of the ‘the whole routine of bare / canvas & all the paints all squeezed out’. Next to the experience of another person, a seascape can seem superficial: ‘Sea coves & cliffs, the deserted beach - / they all mean so little / You are there & that is what it is.’ ‘When the geography was fixed’ begins with a view from a room of distant hills, which turns out to be a painting, so delicately done that it is almost a bare canvas. ‘The hill & the room are both in / the white. The colours are here / inside us I suppose.’

The book I had intended to write about here was 'Wine Tales', a collaboration with Ric Caddel.  I was intrigued by its premise, to write short texts based on the images in wine labels.  The wines chosen – Muscadet, Claret, Liebfraumilch – take me back to the time when my parents would choose a bottle from a Brighton supermarket to drink together a the weekend.  I started making tasting notes and still have them, including one for Sainsbury's Rosé d'Anjou (£1.69, "pleasant, if undistinguished"), which was the source for one of the 'Wine Tales'.  In a book of interviews Harwood described the genesis of the book:
'Ric was visiting me in Brighton and we were talking about the wonderful labels you used to get on wine bottles and the stories you could make up to go with them. I'd already done one from a Claret label.  So we decided on a collaboration where one of us would choose a wine label, start a piece, send that to the other who would complete that piece. ... The idea was sparked by a poem by Raymond Roussel called 'La Source'. It's a long poem in strict verse form.  A narrator is sitting in a restaurant with a bottle of mineral water and there's a scene, a landscape, on the bottle. He walks into the landscape. It's a long description of what he sees. Right at the end, he comes out of the label, back to the table in time for the waiter to arrive with his lunch.'


←  part of a page from 'Wine Tales' (Galloping Dog Press, 1984)





my Rosé d'Anjou tasting notes from 1985  →




The reason I never finished my post on Lee Harwood and 'La Source' was that I did not have an English version of Roussel's poem.  However, there is an English translation by Anthony Melville of 'La Vue', which Roussel published together with 'La Source' (and a third poem 'Le Concert') in 1904.  'The View' is a description over 2000 lines long of a tiny beach scene set into the lens of a pen-holder.  The poet's eye focuses in on this seascape and begins to explore the view, encountering a fishing boat and a yacht with people standing about on deck, whose attitudes suggest their inner emotions and motivations.  Returning to the beach he alights on a couple who are themselves gazing at the water – ‘their thoughts are far from the world; they are rapt before / The profound feelings they have poeticised.’  There is a dog chasing a stick, a kite up in the sky, walkers on the boardwalk, beach huts, rocks and a natural arch which perhaps resembles the one at Etretat, so popular with nineteenth century artists.  Indeed there is a painter at work by this arch, oblivious to everything but a decision to be made over one precise spot in his picture.

The poem moves inland, up a road and into the villas that look out to sea, where a boy gazes at a lighthouse through a pair of opera glasses. Below the lighthouse there are more groups of people, lost in thought or watching the beach, like the poet, and his reader. ‘Their eyes are turned / Toward the sea’s edge, if not for the beauty / Of the waves, at least to watch some incident.’  They are like characters in Proust, whose narrator would recall similar scenes in À la recherche du temps perdu. Now as I write this, seeing that old wine label again, I am taken back to my own memories of the seaside at Brighton.  Lee Harwood wrote 'yet another Brighton poem' in praise of its beach, which made him feel 'good and happy and so at ease in the world'.  In Raymond Roussel's poem, the light finally goes down on the view, and the poet is left with his own ‘latent memories of a summer / Now dead, now far from me, fast blown away.'

Friday, July 24, 2015

Rewilding




Last week saw the launch of Rewilding Britain and an interesting piece on Channel 4 News in which George Monbiot returned to the Welsh sheep-farming 'Desert' he described in Feral.  The clip embedded above includes interviews with rewilder Ritchie Tassell and sheep farmer Dafydd Jones, who speaks entirely in Welsh to emphasise the landscape's cultural ecology.  Both feature in Feral and demonstrate opposing ways in which rewilding can be seen - as an attempt to reverse the long history of increasing estrangement from nature, or as the final step in a process that has driven people off the land.  Tassell recalls his childhood in Northumberlandshire, when the last mixed farms disappeared: 'that was the worst of times in terms of habitat destruction, almost the final nail in the coffin of what John Clare was writing about.'  But for Dafydd Jones, rewilding is a post-Romantic ideology, that seems to imagine a world without people.  In Feral Monbiot tries to reconcile these positions, concluding that it would be possible to rebalance economic incentives so that 'people as well as wildlife will regain a footing on the land.'

Monbiot wrote about John Clare in one of his columns a few years ago, recalling how he documented 'both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind. "Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came."  Enclosure removed Clare from the intimate Northamptonshire landscape he had experienes as a boy.  Jay Griffiths, quoted in Feral, sees this as a historical moment that 'reaved children of the site of their childhood, robbed them of animal-tutors and river-mentors and stole their deep dream-shelters.'  This is one of the concerns of Rewilding Britian, which is part of a wider movement to encourage children to reconnect with nature (discussed, for example, in the last chapter of Robert Macfarlane's recent book Landmarks). In Feral, Monbiot writes that 'of all the world's creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. ... Missing from children's lives more than almost anything else is time in the woods.'  My own children see little of woodlands in Hackney but they did spend last weekend playing among the trees with their school friends on a parent-organised camping trip.  We were in Epping Forest, not far from the spot where John Clare arrived one July day in 1837, to live at Dr. Allen's asylum.


Wandering through the forest and playing hide-and-seek among the trees it was impossible not to be struck by their strange shapes, with multiple trunks growing from their bases.  They were regularly pollarded until the Epping Forest Act of 1878, which stipulated that the City of London Corporation "shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people".  However, this preservation of the forest has affected its biodiversity as the trees' great crowns block out light, leaving the ground almost bear apart from dead leaves, bark and odd bits of rubbish.  Some of the forest trees have multiple trunks at ground level, representing decades of growth since they were last coppiced.  Their ability to regenerate after coppicing is the subject of a startling speculation in Feral: that our trees adapted to survive snapping and uprooting by the straight-tusked elephants that roamed across Europe until 40,000 years ago. Similarly, 'blackthorn, which possesses very long spines, seems over-engineered to deter browsing by deer; but not, perhaps to deter browsing by rhinoceros.'  The toughness of holly, yew and box trees may reflect an ability to withstand threats that no longer exist. 
'Even if these speculations do not lead to the reintroduction of elephants and rhinos, do they not render the commonplace astonishing?  The notion that our most familiar trees are elephant-adapted, that we can see in their shadows the great beasts with which humans evolved, that the marks of these animals can be found in every park and avenue and leafy street, infuses the world with new wonders.  Paleoecology - the study of past ecosystems, crucial to an understanding of our won - feels like a portal through which we may pass into an enchanted kingdom.'