More Little Places

Robert Macfarlane suggests his own list of nameless places, more resonant and luminous to him than a range of mountains.

“There would be the ‘Dumble’, the steep-sided ditch way in Nottinghamshire, in which I played with my brother when we were young. There would be the little birch grove near Langdale in Cumbria, whose trees I had climbed and swung between. There would be the narrow strip of broadleaf woodland at the base of the Okement valley in Devon, where I saw a blue-backed falcon slip from an oak and glide off out of sight – a merlin! Such a good guardian for such a magical place.”

It made me think about what would be in my list. I could say nights on the Venice lagoon or views from the Monsal Dale viaduct near Bakewell, but it just wouldn’t be true. Most potent for me would be:

– Sandy Market Square’s bus stop, looking out over the rooftops to the sand hills

– A flight of crumbling old steps near Hitchin town centre

– The promenade at Bognor Regis and its streetlights

– The woods above Woburn Sands, looking down over the town

What a gift it is that such humdrum places can become supercharged with poetic meaning. 

The Little Places

In The Wild Places (2007), Robert MacFarlane ponders the importance of our encounters with place. Those often unromantic but intensely meaningful places we all hold a store of.

“Most of these places, however, were not marked as special on any map. But they became special by personal acquaintance. A bend in the river, a junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along – these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, and twirling in mid-air like a magic trick…

“Little is said publicly about these encounters. This is partly because it is hard to put language  to such experiences. And partly, I guessed, because those who experience them feel no strong need to broadcast their feelings…They would return to people as memories, recalled while standing on a station platform packed tightly as a football crowd, or lying in bed in a city, unable to sleep, while the headlights of cars pan round the room.

“It seemed to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander, wild lands that for so many years had gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless existed in the experience of countless people.” 

It’s a passing consideration for MacFarlane, a small part of his efforts to make sense of what constitutes the ‘wild’ in modern Britain, what it’s value might be. For JCP, of course, these issues are an obsession. Our relationships with places, and the moments of heightened consciousness they evoke, are full of secrets, and secrets that are fundamental to everything that is most affecting, even somehow magical, in human culture.

But as MacFarlane points out, experiences of the little places aren’t talked about. Best not. It’s all too vague and odd-sounding, particularly when it comes to attributing actual significance to attitudes and how lives are lived.

The celandine time

Celandines remind me more of John Cowper Powys than the coming of spring: the combination of vivid colour and our northern chill, the surprises from damp, earth-smelling grass. It’s the kind of mood that dominates much of Wolf Solent – which always feels like a springtime book (Glastonbury for summer, Porius for autumn?).

Celandines work for Powys something like TS Eliot’s April lilac, mixing memory with desire.

 

        After all

        There are moments,

        Even for the most unhappy,

        When, out of some tiny crevice,

        Some small overlooked chink in the great Wine-Vat,

        The good liquor spurts forth

        Into our mouth.

 

        And we remember

        How long ago the rain-wet celandines

        Pierced us with memories,

        With memories of things deeper than sleep or death

        And older than all the orbits of the planets.

        Over the tossing poplars,

        Over the misty plough-lands,

        Over the dreamy meadows,

        Those memories came;

        Nor did they melt to nothing

        Even when, from the witch-girl’s window,

        The lamp-light streamed across the night.

 

        And we remember

        How from a long straight road –

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        While at our feet silver-weed and dandelion

        Laughed out of the hot dust,

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        We heard it; we knew it;

        The Sea! The Sea! The Sea!

 

JCP, ‘Compensation’ (a poem which resonated with Iris Murdoch, who used the last line for the title of her 1978 novel).