Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

After playing Karine Polwart's corncrake song in yesterday's post, I was reminded this:

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"What he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both books are highly recommended, along with her wonderful new essay collection, Surfacing. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Isle of Eigg

This morning I'd like to re-visit the Songs of Separation project: the brainchild of folk musician Jenny Hill, conceived in 2014 during the run-up to the referendum for Scottish independence. Hill's idea was to bring ten English and Scottish women folk musicians to a fairy-tale island off Scotland's west coast to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms. In a week that is leading to Britian's departure from the EU, and the loss of my husband and daughter's precious rights as citizens of Europe, Hill's theme is sadly relevant once again.

"Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage," she writes, "and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to evoke emotional responses and prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives. The collected songs aim to get to the heart of what we feel when we are faced with a separation, both good and bad."

The musicians (along with Jen Hill) are: Hazel AskewJenn Butterworth, Eliza CarthyHannah James, Mary Macmaster, Karine PolwartHannah Read, Rowan Rheingans, and Kate Young. They spent an intensive week planning, rehearsing, and recording the album on Isle of Eigg in June 2015 -- including recordings made at the two sites central to the ‘Big Women of Eigg’ legend.

Above: A short video on the making of Songs of Separation, which includes fascinating discussion on the project's theme, on the creative process, and on the role of folk arts in society -- a perfect combination for Myth & Moor.

Below: An even shorter video from project's video diary, documenting a group sing, in Gaelic, with the Isle of Eigg community, along with a glimpse of that beautiful landscape. (You can view the other "Daily Reflection" videos on the project's YouTube channel.)

Next, four songs from the album itself, which I highly recommend.

CorncrakeAbove: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake," featuring Karine Polwart. This traditional song, writes music critic Helen Gregory, "contains subtle political content and references to at least two forms of separation, even though it’s often thought of as a simple love song. The lyric tells of a young man whose partner leaves him for the bright lights of Ayr (located on 'the banks o’ Doune'), an act of separation which is one manifestation of the rural depopulation occurring as a result of the impact of the spread of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, further exacerbated in Scotland by the greed-fuelled brutality of the Highland Clearances. And the corncrake? The subject of the separation of humankind from the natural environment is key: habitat loss has meant that the numbers of this migratory bird have declined across the British Isles since the mid-19th century. Consequently, corncrakes are now restricted to Ireland and the northern and western islands of Scotland including, of course, the Isle of Eigg. So it’s fitting that 'Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ opens with a field recording of the bird’s distinctive krek krek call which sets the rhythm of the piece, picked up by percussive beats on a variety of instruments ahead of Karine’s vocals."

Below: "It was A' for our Rightfu' King," written by Robert Burns in the 18th century, arranged here by Hannah Read. "The song is inspired by the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, lead by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720 - 1788)," explains Pauline MacKay. "The Jacobites sought to restore the deposed Stuart dynasty to the Scottish and English throne. The Jacobites were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1746, forcing Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to the highlands. He eventually reached Europe where he died in exile (in Rome). In this song a young woman laments the failure of the uprising and her Jacobite lover's absence from Scotland."

Below: "Muladach Mi ‘s Mi Air M’aineoil (Sad Am I And In A Strange Place)," a waulking song about a woman and two daughters separated from their home. The song's arrangement is by Mary Macmaster.

Above: "Unst Boat Song," a gorgeous prayer for the safety for working at sea by those who have been left behind, recorded in Eigg’s Cathedral Cave. The lyrics are in Norn, an ancient language still heard, in fragments, on the island of Unst.

The musicians of the Songs of Separation project


Art, culture, and radical hope

Frost 1

In The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming asks:

"What is civilization? Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

Frost 2

At this point in modernity, Deming writes,

"one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

Frost 3

"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

Frost 4

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Frost 5

Frost 6

Seven decades later, Terry Tempest Williams reflected on those words:

"I think about Rilke, who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Frost 7

Frost 8

Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The path to the village Commons on a recent frosty morning.


Nature and beauty

In the tangled heart of a wet winter wood,

in the rustle of leaves,

Today, one last passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, accompanied by some photographic time-traveling: a journey through the woods behind my studio from winter to spring and back.

McCarthy writes:

"It is a peculiar property of the earth that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive, but it is also a wondrous property, and it greatly moved us -- as behaviourally modern humans, anyway. Hence over about forty thousand years we have steadily formalised our appreciation and our celebration of it, in what we have come to call art, from Lascaux to Leonardo. Until, that is, the last century. In the last hundred years or so, with the advent of modernism, a new artistic philosophy for an industrial age (and also for a world whose optimism had been irreparably fractured by the First World War), many of our society's high cultural elites have consciously rejected the primacy of beauty, seeing its veneration as outmoded and complascent, and holding that the true purpose of art should be to challenge preconceptions; and they have largely forgotten all about, or simply ignored, where beauty comes from in the first place, which is the natural world. 

"In more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect.

in the silence of moss,

in the damp and the dark

"[...] There is no denying that the veneration of the beauty of nature, which Wordsworth made the fount of his philosophy, has largely ceased to figure in high culture since modernism contemptuously swept it aside; and modernism's triumph was of course comprehensive, in painting and sculpture, in music and in poetry. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was a substantial group of English poets collectively known as the Georgians who wrote extensively about nature and were read by large audiences; some were quite good, some were not, but all except one were consigned to lasting oblivion by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922 and the modernist revolution which followed (the exception, of course, being the wonderful Edward Thomas, who was anyway very much more than a 'Georgian nature poet'). We retain the legacy of those attitudes. So beauty in general and the natural beauty of the earth in particular have gone largely unsanctioned as objects of relevance by the cultural elites of the 20th and now of the 21st century, and we hear little of them from those quarters; and yet, of course, many ordinary people who do not feel they must be aligned with prevailing cultural modes of thought have been drawn to the beauty of nature as much as people ever were, and I am one of them.

in the cold and the clear,

"Let me tell you about a wood. Five times in one week, I went to this wood. Five separate trips, on five successive days. And each time, after the first time, I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready -- the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure -- but it was even more than that, it was the anticipation of a sort of ecstasy, at beholding what the woods contained, hidden in its depths, which was something truly exceptional, as exceptional as a crashed flying saucer, I found myself thinking....Each time I stopped at the gate I said to myself, I know what is in there....

A gate swings open. Enter, my dear.

BluebellsIt was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy. 

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it, which was not solid like a blue door might be but constantly morphing in tone with the light and shade, now lilac, now cobalt, a blue which was gentle but formidably strong, so intense as to be mesmerising: at some moments it was hard to believe it was composed of flowers. But that was the beauty and the joy of the bluebells, their floral richness and their profusion, a dozen blue bell-heads nodding on every stem, a hundred thousand stems pressing together in every glade until it ceased to be plants, it was just an overwhelming incredible blueness at the bottom of a wood....

Cross over the threshold, the bridge, the stile,

slip through that small secret door in the hill,

into the green, and into the blue,

"In that wood, in that spring not long ago, for five days in succession I was struck dumb by the beauty of the earth. For five days I went back purposely to look at that colour, that living colour, because when I accidentally came across it, it was at its peak, and I knew that soon it would fade. Day after day after day after day after day. And I told no one. I think I was...what? Ashamed? No, not at all; but I am influenced by prevailing cultural norms as much as the next person, and I suppose I felt that declaiming about five successive days of bluebell-peeping would be regarded as eccentric? Or something? Yet I was drawn back there ineluctably, to glut my senses on colour. Without telling a soul. It felt almost like being a part of the underground....

into Faerieland, clever child, foolish child.

Where magic lives,

and where you shall live too,

forgetting your world for a year and a day,

"For if the beauty of nature is not high in official cultural favour, as we set out into the 21st century, it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds, with a force that strongly suggests it is rooted in our underlying bond with the natural world, and that culture is being trumped by instinct. That is certainly the case with me.

and only then will you find your way home,

"I do not care a fig that modernism may have cast beauty aside, and that the legacy of that rejection may be with us today; to me, the beauty of the natural world retains its joy-giving power and its importance undiminished by artistic, cultural or philosophical fashion -- indeed, its importance is increased immeasurably by the fact that now it is mortally threatened."

pockets full of faery gold that has turned into leaves. And sorrow. And poems.

Pictures: Winter, spring, and winter again on our Devon hillside. Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. The little poem/tale in the picture captions today is mine.