Life has been so busy lately. And, every time I’ve tried to scoop blog-time into my fraying net of available hours, it has slipped away; swimming off into some shadowy, unreachable part of the stream. I wrote this post way back in the first week of October, and ever since then, it has been sitting amongst my hoard of drafts; tucked away until I could find time to mull it over, add photos and make final tweaks. But now, hurried by the days flowing ever faster towards Christmas, I’ve made another attempt at netting this blog post and (at last!) have released it from its sleepy, pondering corner:
It was a poignant treat to catch Radio 4’s broadcasts of Seamus Heaney’s readings from his translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.
I didn’t get the chance to listen to every episode, but when I did manage to settle, be still and to tune into Heaney’s warm and mellifluous voice, I felt transported to the fireside of an ancient mead hall, listening to the storyteller as he ‘unlocked his word-hoard’ – the ancient tale of warriors clad in ‘the brightly forged work of goldsmiths,’ shadowed by the terrifying monster Grendel.
My paperback copy of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf wears an austere face
Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published by Faber and Faber
but there is a tactile richness about it that makes it so satisfying to hold. Its paper is creamy – its cover peach-soft. The whole book feels pliable and smooth; like silken air made tangible and divided into opening breaths, releasing word patterns across the ages.
My first experience of Beowulf was when I read bits and pieces of it in the original Old English. How did I do that? Now, I just don’t know! I studied Old English for only a short time (when English Language was one of my first year subsidiary subjects) – and The Battle of Maldon was our main text of focus:
Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon
Today, well over twenty years later, I remember only a handful of Old English words, including the expressive chewiness of waelwulfas, meaning ‘wolves of slaughter,’ a reference to fierce warriors, often specifically the Vikings. Heaney’s wonderful translation sits on my shelves, forming a much needed and hugely welcome portal to fuller understanding…
Now, when I think of Beowulf, a section of Robert Macfarlane’s mesmerising book The Wild Places always comes to mind.
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta
In the second chapter, Island, Macfarlane beautifully explores contrasting currents in humanity’s attitudes to the rest of nature:
‘Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time. And in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.’
He goes on to explore examples, including Beowulf, which is:
‘…filled with what the poet calls wildeor, or ‘savage creatures’. In the poem, these monstrous dragon-like beings inhabit a landscape of wolf-haunted forests, deep lakes, windswept cliffs and treacherous marshes. It is against these wild places and wildeor that the civilisation of Beowulf’s tribe, the Geats – with their warm and well-lit mead halls, their hierarchical warrior culture – sets itself.
Parallel to this hatred of the wild, however, has run an alternative history: one that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite, and of wild places as realms of miracle, diversity and abundance. At the same time that the Beowulf-poet was writing his parable of the conquest of the wild, the monks of Enlli, Rona, the Skelligs and elsewhere were praising its beauty and its riotous fecundity.’
Robert Macfarlane tells of how the Celtic monks, the peregrini, ‘sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wildness’ and that:
‘Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes. We can surmise that the monks moved outwards because they wished to leave behind inhabited land: land which in every feature was named. Almost all Celtic place-names are commemorative: the bardic schools, as late as the seventeenth century, taught the history of places through their names, so that landscape became a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging. To migrate away from the named places (territories whose topography was continuous with memory and community) to the coasts (the unmapped islands, the anonymous forests) was to reach land that did not bear the marks of occupation. It was to act out a movement from history to eternity.’
Macfarlane points to the ‘rich literature’ left behind by the peregrini, most of whose individual names, like that of the Beowulf poet, are lost to us through time. Their writings are scattered ‘gleanings’ we can gather and hoard to piece together glimpses of their thoughts. The monks’ poems, Macfarlane tells us:
‘speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterised their interactions with it. Some of their poems read like jotted lists, or field notes:- ‘Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark wild torrent.’
Reading Macfarlane’s descriptions of their delight-filled poems, it seems to me that, despite the monks’ efforts to leave behind the named and the known, belonging gathered round them. Connection reasserted itself in growing affinity with the character of each new place, and in the larger patterns of nature that overarched wherever they travelled. There’s a strong sense that those patterns, both inner and outer, adjusted and found old recognition in their fit, whether the precise details of the surroundings, or the living creatures that inhabited them, were new or familiar.
Alongside their feelings of exile from an otherworldly eternity, on which their sights were set – nature, for these monks, also seems to have been a deepening into Moment and This World. Awareness of the wind, of bird calls, of foxes at play, of sunlight spilling on the page, is accompanied by a nourishing and gladdening wonder. There is a sense that they are bearing gentle, reassured witness to not so much an over-spilling of edges – but a complete suffusion of the sacred in this world; a recognition of the epic, and a faith in the divine, as it passes over on the wings of barnacle geese, lives in the roar of the ‘dark wild torrent’ – or bides time in the small, focused movement of a beetle. ‘For these writers,’ Macfarlane tells us, ‘attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship.’
Through these ancient texts, both Celtic and Anglo Saxon, we see ideas of the wild travelling on complex currents of culture, environment and experience – and a strong undertow of older beliefs and traditions mixed with the new. All leave a tangled pattern of tide marks for us to try to interpret; as well as a great deal we can recognise in the workings of the world today, and in ourselves, as each of us adds to the pattern.
Recently, I’ve been reading and revelling in Miriam Darlington’s beautiful and gripping book, Otter Country.
Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta
I had already composed most of this post when I reached the section of the book, Marsh, in which Miriam tracks the elusive otter through the mysterious flatlands of the Somerset Levels, not far from where we live. She writes that the Avalon Marshes are: ‘living memory. A reading of the layered chapters in the peat reveals the story’- and I feel compelled by Miriam’s rich, illuminating observations to, otter-like, slide them in here as another layer to this post, building more seams into the ever-deepening story:
‘I can’t look at the marsh without the stories of its dark side creeping in. At night here it’s as black as a bag, and you can’t see or feel your way out. In the fog it feels as if the earth wants to eat you. Our ancestors used to throw votive offerings and trinkets into the mire to avoid being devoured. In Beowulf, Grendel comes out of the swamp to drag people off and feast on them. Bogs did and do still swallow people. The Grendel stories translate wetland into a dark, mapless world: ‘it is not far from here,’ the story suggests, inviting us to glance over our shoulders, ‘nor is it a pleasant place.’ The memory of devil-ridden mire, the unconquered swamp, has always been close-by. On the other hand, the American writer Aldo Leopold, in his Marshland Elegy, admired marshy landscape so much that he claimed he would have liked to be a musk-rat. Henry David Thoreau loved to stand up to his neck in a swamp. He said that when he was dead they would find bog oak written on his heart; and Seamus Heaney sanctifies the ottery bog as part of his national identity. He describes its fathomless texture as saturated with another sort of language ‘meaning soft,/ the fall of windless rain’. Does the shape of the watery landscape affect the way we feel and see? These writers at least seem to have been consciously nourished by wetlands.’
– From Otter Country, by Miriam Darlington (Published by Granta)
As I write this, it is raining. I look out of the window and see a grey pall of sky, wet roofs and running gutters. A magpie is croaking sullenly from a chimney across the street. But, back in September, glorious sunshine turned the close of that month into a glowing lamp to light up the last corner of summer.
My husband and I took our son out to test drive his new wheelchair – and were met by a blaze of berries. The blackberries had ripened – but were mostly still unyielding fists of fruit – not yet ready to fall from the stalk as we grasped them between finger and thumb.
As we walked, the trees and shrubs flaunted their fruits – rowan, hawthorn, sloes, elder, rosehips…
But the most spectacular of all were the spindle trees. Exotic in fruitful display, the spindle is a shrub which seems to belie its credentials as a native to our ancient woodlands.
The spindle berries are like tiny Chinese lanterns. Luminous, and a startling shade of pink, they are shaped with an incredible delicacy and grace of form:
They hang from the trees like jewels waiting to be plucked. Embellishments fit for a Saxon sword.
Some of the leaves had turned the same shade of pink as the berries – and, against the blue sky, each one glowed like a mead hall flame.
A few clusters amongst the abundant spindle berries had already burst their casing – revealing bright orange seed, ripe and sticky.
Look closely at a spindle tree’s branches, and you will see the beautiful, bulging precision of their squared edges – like a rounded dice, stretched and thinned into elongated form.
Richard Mabey’s botanically and culturally fascinating Flora Britannica (an epic work in its own right!) tells us that the spindle tree ‘shares its name with the weighted stick that was used for hand-spinning raw wool before the invention of the spinning wheel’ and that this name:
‘appears to have been imported by the sixteenth-century botanist William Turner: ‘I haue sene this tree oft tymes in England and in moste plentye betwene Ware and Barkwaye, yet for al that I coulde neuer learne an Englishe name for it: the Duche men call it in Netherlande Spilboome that is Spindel tree, because they vse to make Spindels of it in that contrey and me thynke it may be so wel named in English.’
It is curious that this specialised foreign name stuck, and replaced a host of popular names that more accurately reflected its uses here. Spindle’s hard, pale yellow wood made it ideal for skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles, and before Turner (and after him, in country districts) it was known, for instance, as prickwood, skewer-wood (or skiver) and pincushion shrub.’
As we looked and I photographed, a dragonfly darted through the spindle’s leaves, pausing to glisten darkly as it warmed its wings in the sun. A speckled wood butterfly, looking fresh and pristine – a flourishing of the year’s second or third brood – did likewise.
We walked home accompanied by the chatter of sparrows in garden hedges, and the soft rise of white butterflies from late flowers. In our garden, a single small white still haunted our ever-dwindling buddleia bush. The breeze batted its unresisting form between hedge and fence – and a fresh, emblazoned red admiral took centre stage, declaring itself with colours bolder even than the day.
In The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (1991 edition), Jeremy Thomas writes:
‘After hibernation, the adult Red Admiral has a strong urge to fly northwards. This lasts throughout May, June, and July, and brings varying numbers to Britain every year…. From mid-August onwards, a change takes place, and the Red Admirals start to return south. By mid-September, the traffic becomes more or less one-way. Nobody knows whether this is triggered by the diminishing length of days, or whether it is simply an instinct of the final brood to emerge…. In general, the species is commonest after a long, warm summer, and is sometimes very abundant indeed.’
In our West Country garden, the red admiral fed for a while on the buddleia, tipping its way round and between the fermenting and shrivelled flowers, disappearing and reappearing as it folded and opened its patterned wings. And, in the mellow slide of light into the lengthening grass, autumn too seemed to be opening and closing a fitful dance towards the mead hall fireside. All around us, the day was gathering a summer-hoard; drawing to it time-translating tales. Ripening them like berries.
The red admiral felt the shift in the light. Tied to the sun, it was tugged towards the story’s centre. It landed, wings outspread, on our whirligig washing line – a display of contrasts.
The beautiful and the mundane, the caught and the uncontrollable, the named and the unnamed, the known and the unknown, ends and beginnings; each exists in the turned back edges of the other. Side by side, they find each other out – and, like poetry, unlock the epic in the everyday.
And in our garden now, in the rain, teasels waver – bronze, light-fringed – hoarding their confident waiting for goldfinches to set them on fire…