Picture of Scottish Mountains

Ceasing Never

geopoetics, ecopoetics and the poetry of place

After four collections of poems about landscapes, weather and plants, I suppose I have to think of myself as an eco-poet. I write about nature all the time, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon. I’m not entirely comfortable with it, however. Over the last few years, something has been building, apparently linked to earth-based writing, that causes me disquiet. It’s about wildness. There seems to be a neo-Gothic craving among some leading writers, for derelict, ravaged and uncharted country, a demand for a world that is comfortless, if not savage, that defies hope and sentimentality, that likes to disappoint. And it brings to a head something I first thought back in the nineties, when there were people chained to trees to prevent motorways from being built: I’m not entirely sure that our attitude towards the environment is about nature at all. It seems increasingly clear that there is something else going on.
And when you come to look, you realise that there are quite a lot of things going on. There are some people who look for experiences of wildness because it makes them feel privileged and special. It’s a kind of gnosis, an initiation. It doesn’t always follow that these people despise the barbarian hordes who haven’t had such an experience, but sometimes they do – and sometimes they back it with the trappings of professionalism and expertise. A lot of the creation of reserves and SSSIs involves keeping people at a distance unless they have permits or licences – even if those people have lived and worked there for their entire lives.
These are people for whom the essence of ‘wild’ is ‘untouched by humans.’ They give the impression that they are capable of seeing other people only in terms of limitation, destruction or oppression, as, for example, the kind of people who turn to a caring mother nature because they have been neglected in their personal lives or who take a stand to protect nature as a way of ‘sticking it to the man’. Sometimes these people are looking for peace and harmony, a sense of balance or purpose that is missing from industrial or urban life. And sometimes it is freedom to express a part of one’s personality that civilised society doesn’t accommodate very easily.
These are not merely self-indulgent escape strategies. Longing for connection to the earth, like nostalgia, addresses real and urgent needs in our political as well as our personal lives. We do not long for it because we have a sentimental or romantic fantasy about the land or the past; we generate the hyperbolic vision precisely because our need is so genuine, and so intense. But it remains incontrovertibly about us. What we disregard, in all our rush to be green and eco-centric, is the long shadow we cast over what we are looking at. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. We cast the shadow because we need to see it, to know it’s there. But it’s our shadow. We find it because we’ve brought it, as Sam Gamgee says in The Lord of the Rings. We should probably be cautious about how we ascribe this stuff to nature. Wild is in our heads, a myth of our own making. The earth has business of its own.
This is not to say that myths are not valuable. We could, and very often do, use myths as a way of recovering our connection with the earth. Tolkien points out, in his essay On Fairy Stories that ‘recovery’ is one of the most basic functions of fantasy – if life has become dull and stodgy ‘dipping it into story’ is one way of making you appreciate the common things. And it is certainly true of The Lord of the Rings – all those elves and monsters and magical rings, and what you really remember is the sound of a house door shutting in the early morning when the hobbits leave the Shire, and the shining scarlet runner beans in Bombadil’s wet and misty garden.
However, I am not sure that the process isn’t better the other way round. We learn by moving from the known to the unknown. If we use myth to sacralise nature, will it not keep us prisoned in a romantic and sentimental – and beyond that, a self-serving – view of nature? If we don’t value a salmon as a fish in a river, but as a repository for the hidden wisdom of the wild, what will we understand about either fish or wisdom? Whereas if we learn about the salmon, observe it, and care for its habitat, we will certainly learn something interesting and valuable about the world we live in, but we might also be more fitted to understand the nature of all that wisdom it represents. There’s more joy in discovering the quirks and flaws and deviations and serendipities of a world which is given, than in designing a matrix that obeys the narcissistic whims of the human fantasy.
As an eco-poet, my experience of nature, my ‘given’ world is far from the wilderness. The place I write from now, though surrounded by fields and wild green spaces, is a newbuild suburban estate, inhabited by families with their dogs, their astroturf front lawns and trampolines, and the land I walk, the weather the weather I deal with, the hills, burns, fieldpaths and woods, the suburban gardens and urban road verges are all well-trodden. It is domestic, in the sense that it is my home, and I am not a trespasser among the more-than-human entities in my environment. I am a neighbour.
It is more difficult to be a neighbour than an explorer, and it offers less food to the ego than being a shaman. The shifts and compromises and restrictions of living in a human community are doubled and complicated by the many species resident in my small territory. Conducting relationships requires a level of intimacy with all my neighbours, and they are not all inclined to serve my convenience. The depredations of slugs and aphids, a blackbird disembowelling a frog on my garden steps, rain when I expected frost, all remind me that I am not in charge here. It does not offer much in the way of escape, but if followed with patience, it can be a grounding, even healing experience.
I can see that for the writer, despite all its therapeutic possibilities, this neighbourly and domestic attitude to nature can be a trap – it would be very easy to succumb to the chatty personable soap opera presentation of, say, Springwatch. It is not immune to the human habit of projection either, and it can be too lyrical or romantic, leading to the over-familiar slew of twee verses about the countryside. Though it requires a degree of intimacy and reciprocity, it also demands a decent observation of boundaries. Robert Frost’s ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ is as true of our non-human neighbours as it is of our families, and it applies to poetry as much as anything else. The environment, wild or domestic, is not a gymnasium for the human soul, but lives out its own reality. If my writing is unwilding, it is not because I am trying to tame it, but because I am trying to record that reality, and honour it.