The Spirit of Place

Three rather different books all imbued with a tremendous sense of rootedness, of place as opposed to space. I have pinched the title of this post from one of the books.

scan0006To start with H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. This is both a memoir and a meditation and conceivably a handbook for falconers. Helen Macdonald is both a scholar and a falconer. In this book she recounts her relationship with her goshawk Mabel, her illness following the sudden death of her father and her childhood and redeeming passion for hawks, large and small and the community that comprise modern falconry, but above all she relates to another, possibly less well known depressive who also had a goshawk and who wrote about it in a book called The Goshawk, the brilliant, if flawed T H White.

The death of her father, a well known photographer-reporter plunged Ms Macdonald into a strange disconnected state of mind that was part grief, part depression and part isolation. She left her position as a fellow of a Cambridge College and withdrew from society, she contacted a breeder of goshawks from Ireland and set about training her young goshawk, Mabel. But goshawks remain wild even if you train them to return to your fist, they are killing machines and whether you like it or not, death is what they do best.

In a strange, dreamlike state Helen lives with her goshawk in a state of invisibility, that is to say she trains the bird not to take any notice of her, to focus on the food, not on the provider; having successfully done that, the trainer can venture out and eventually the bird can be allowed to become what it has been all along – a bird of prey.

In the early stages, Helen read and re-read compulsively, the handbook on how not to treat a wild bird, T H White’s own book about Gos. His manifestly dreadful, amateurish attempt to train a goshawk, which ended in failure. T H White was a depressed, alcoholic homosexual. Having retired from teaching at Stowe School in the early years of the school, he retreated to a small cottage on the estate and filled his life with the goshawk and drink. The book is a litany of what not to do, but it was also the diary of a man so filled with self-hatred, misery and despair that it makes for difficult, if not dreadful reading. Helen Macdonald read it first as a teenager, she resisted re-reading it when deciding on her own adventure with a goshawk, but in the end felt compelled to open it again, and repulsed and fearful, still read it.

Both books have a tremendous sense of place. Reading H is for Hawk, the reader feels that he knows every hedgerow, furrow and field of Cambridgeshire, where Mabel is first allowed to fly loose after rabbits and occasionally pheasants; the pages are blood-spattered with Helen’s scratches as she pushes through hedges and brambles to flush out prey, or in pursuit of the distantly jingling bells on her hawk and with the kills, where Mabel mantles over her prey. We tense with Helen, when the hawk disappears into a copse just as we weep for T H White as he desperately searches the woodlands and spinneys of Stowe for his missing goshawk.

Unlike an ordinary pet, one cannot truly ‘own’ a wild bird. One can teach it to come to a whistle on a Pavlovian recall associated with food, but if the trainer allows the bird to get either too hungry or too full, then the hawk can stop returning to the fist, and will sit in a tree – the wretched falconer must simply wait.

This book garnered The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction this year, it is a spell binding read and a tale of depression survived, the light dawns and the world tilts back to normal (more or less). It is a book full of love, enchantment, mystery and the mesmerising joy of Mabel, Helen’s goshawk.

The second book is to all intents and purposes, a gardening book. But one with such a difference that is more like a breviary of gardens, or a history of a small piece of land in Shropshire that becomes a garden. scan0005 Katherine Swift has to persuade the National Trust that she is competent to create a completely new garden around the Dower House at Morville. In her book, The Morville Hours, she has chosen to write about the building of the garden as if she were completing a Book of Hours. Each section is divided into the hours of worship that would have been familiar to the monks and nuns who lived at one time in the priory, on or near to the site of the Dower House, a priory which went the way of so many others in the time of Henry VIII, a priory whose very stones were taken away to build the new manor building and possibly the Dower House itself.

It is also, at one and the same time, a history of the people who have lived in the house going back to the beginning, and even before the beginning to the very first occupiers of the land, the people who came after the ice-age, who left their nomadic hunter-gatherer life-style and settled to agrarian land use.

The reader is drawn through the seasons and the hours of the day, the various tasks and the monastic perspective and the garden itself is designed to reflect these changing moments. The views that alter from winter to summer, the view from the garden and also the view from the house. Each aspect is carefully thought through, and the patient gardener with her occasional assistants, creates all the different places in the garden each separate but related, a place of meditation, calm and balm. Sometimes a riot of colour, sometimes a restful green.scan0008

It is a book that plants the reader into the ground just as if he or she were a bulb, you feel the cold and the warmth of the sun, you feel the rain, the frost and the wind. But you also feel related to the places outside the garden, and to the plants and plants-men, to the early explorers who travelled the world to bring back specimens of new plants, and to the marvellous variety of things – the various apples, their qualities and tastes and uses; the pears and quinces; the tulips and roses and even the hedges. But also the stones, the big and little ones that appear in the tilled ground. It is an all-encompassing picture of a garden, its place in the history of mankind, a little paradise. It is a jewel of a book. Each chapter is preceded by an exquisite drawing by Dawn Burford.

Finally a book that really is about place, and only about place. Philip Marsden writes about places that seem to have a prehistoric significance, the tors, stone circles, caves and pathways of Cornwall. An early life spent in the Mendips engages the interest of a young Philip Marsden. He and his friends pass a cave on their way to the open ground which is their playground, the open moors. Later, as an adult, he reads an article about Adeline’s Cave which identifies it with the earliest ceremonial burial site in England. scan0007

In Rising Ground the reader goes with Philip Marsden and various friends and experts around the very different, haunting and evocative places in Cornwall. Various people have speculated for years about the nature and purpose of stone circles, tors, dolmen and standing stones. Their marked orientation to each other, to the Pole Star, to the solstice or equinox and got no nearer really than agreeing that they have ‘significance’ impenetrable to modern man, but nevertheless deeply felt.

There is, without doubt, something different about standing inside a stone circle, whether it is the monumental henge in Wiltshire – Stonehenge, or the less well known circles dotted around Britain, even if we cannot now see quite what they were ‘for’, we can feel that they have a spirit of place.

The ones I know best are all in Cumbria which are thought to be the oldest. Castlerigg, near Penrith, is a large circle of stones in a field, all around from the centre of the circle you can see the hills of the Lake District and the Pennines, and in a very real way, the shapes of the stones you are surrounded by, echo or mirror the shapes of the hills themselves. It is a very weird feeling. Centuries ago other people, related to you only by the incidence of place, stood where you are standing and did what? Whatever they did, they too looked at the stones and beyond them the hills…

Philip Marsden, by the sheer magic of his prose, takes us on a rambling passage round the ancient monuments of Cornwall, and puts the reader right there in the centre of those stones, or on that windswept and chilly hilltop. Through a chink in the stones, we see the sunrise or the Pole Star circling above us at night. At one and the same time he also takes us through the exigences of remodelling an old house set squarely and properly in the surrounding landscape.


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Filed under Books, Culture, Environment, History, Nature Writing, Travel, Uncategorized

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