Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wall brown and brimstone yellow

(The caterpillar is not of either of the butterflies, but that of some kind of moth, probably of a form of arctiidae. The brimstone is a female, barely yellow at all, and at a quick glance could be mistaken for any of the white butterflies. A closer look at her form and markings, however, shows her to be a pale and elegant image of her sulphurous mate.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dear companions

This Robert Graves selection I've had since I was about 17, though, as the pre-decimal price indicates, it was considerably older than that when I obtained it. My A-level English teacher dug it out of the store cupboard, along with Housman and, I think, Auden, and passed it on to me. At the end of my time there, the others found their way back, but somehow or other, accidentally on purpose, this one didn't. I can't imagine it was missed; I doubt Graves was ever on the syllabus, the presence of the books probably came from the time when the 6th form college was a grammar school, and my teacher was able to have a freer hand to teach, or simply share, the poetry he loved. He was a lean, dark, dry man, with an agreeable touch of bitterness, 50 to my 17, and naturally I was more than a little in love with him. (I've mentioned my Abelard and Heloise thing before, haven't I? Happily for the men concerned, however, the final outcome has been otherwise... and I'm too old to play Heloise now.) I don't know where he is now; I could Google him, he had published on Chaucer and others, so there would be a bio somewhere. But I don't want to know if he's no longer living, I don't feel like that ' They told me Heraclitus...' kind of shadow of grief.
Well, I kept the Graves, and I think he probably got me to university, on the syllabus or not. My results were poor, with the exception of a special paper distinction, where somehow I broke through into a state of modest inspiration writing a critical comparison between 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'The Vicar of Wakefield' - the examiners were probably so astonished that any 18 year old in 1980 had read the latter that they gave me the mark regardless. If I became catatonically stupid in exams, I was even worse at interview, my inarticulacy verging on lockjaw. But at Cardiff, I was given an opening to talk about Graves, and my momentary animation must have persuaded them to give me a chance.
And, I think with Housman ( Hopkins was a discipline I was bent to and I have always been completely grateful, but he was never quite a friend, more so now, perhaps ), Graves has been my dearest companion, outlasting the moods of my adolescence, the fashions and infatuations of my 20s and the neglect of my 30s to be with me still. So, from the book, this is for all of you, my dear companions, most of whom I have never seen, with much love, perhaps a belated Valentine:
At first sight
'Love at first sight,' some say, misnaming
Discovery of twinned helplessness
Against the huge tug of procreation.
But friendship at first sight? This also
Catches fiercely at the surprised heart
So that the cheek blanches and then blushes.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Valley # 2

If at the end of our land you follow the road to the right then cut through the fields you come to the next valley. It is wooded too, but a gentler, more shallow concavity than the first, more open and grassy, and sometimes they put small numbers of cattle there, usually the younger ones who can stay down there for a few days and don't have to be fetched in for milking. I rather like to see cattle among trees, it puts me in mind of Bewick's engraving of the white bull. A vet friend who did a stint of overseas aid years ago was involved in a programme to introduce cattle to Western Samoa, and speaks of the odd charm of seeing cows among coconut palms. However the animals do rather churn it up, and Molly's not very keen on them, especially the boisterous younger ones, ever since, when she was a puppy, a cow gave her a friendly kiss with a rough tongue across her face. She's no coward but the memory has stayed with her. At the moment though, there are no cattle.

The stream flows from a-tree ringed pool, which I assume was artificially created and which I understand has some fish in it. It is also home to coypu, which are quite common here, an unwanted introduction. They undermine the banks of rivers and ponds and carry leptospirosis, but are vegetarian and don't seem to damage crops hugely. The plan is to control their numbers rather than eradicate them; there is a bounty on their heads and a trapping programme. They make a most peculiar noise, something like a 45 rpm guinea pig being played at 33.

Down the left side of the valley a number of trees have been felled but their trunks and stumps left to decay. Moss and ivy, foxglove and pennywort colonise the caves and valleys of the dead stumps, a fractal landscape within a landscape,

and the great bones of the barkless trunks fall away into cavities and death's head faces reminiscent of Michelangelo's damned souls.

But there is no real menace in these twisted patterns; vegetal death contains some of the sadness but none of the horror of carnal death, it is earthy but clean, and always carries the certainty of regeneration, of resurrection, if you will, in like form.

Further into the wood and across the stream, fallen trees make archways across the path,

there are no daffodils here, but sometimes primroses, and as ever, shiny-faced celandine, with a scattering of windflowers - wood anemones - in amongst them.

On the other scarped edge of the valley are a row of very old emonde chestnuts.

Their growth is one sided, the other half of the trunk has become atrophied, laced and striated and honeycombed with cracks and holes and whorls, open to light and air.

Leaves and husks lodge in these niches, sometimes making a serendipitous still-life.

This one seems at some point to have been burned.

Again, they take on a look of creatures ( 'where's the face, where's the face?' we are hardwired from infancy to demand...)

There is an illuminated manuscript, a bestiary, a Book of Kells, to be found in these old trees.

And suddenly, one of these dragons from the old wood will prove not to be sleeping after all, and green fire will burst out of its cracked and brittle jaws.

Yes, in the vegetal world, there is always resurrection.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

'Beautiful comical things'

'... and lovely on the lake
When that the sunlight draws
Thereon their pictures dim
In colours cool

... And when beneath the pool

They dabble,

...But if you go too near

They look at you through black

Small topaz-tinted eyes

And wish you ill.'

( FW Harvey. Off the scale for 'fridge magnet cuteness. No apologies.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Granite and other media

Cultural events here aren't exactly thick on the ground as dandelions, but we do all right. Last weekend there were no less than two exhibitions in St Brieuc ( our prefectural town and my place of work ) we wanted to see, and I had some other errands there, so off we went.

The first was at the main museum, of pictures by Emile Daube. Unfortunate name, perhaps, but daubs they were not. He was for long in charge of the museum's art collection, and also taught painting to appreciative students some of whose works were also there. He struck me rather as one of those unfortunates whose actual talents lie in a direction other than their creative passion; he painted some brilliantly accomplished formal and informal portraits, but clearly his great love was for landscapes, which he painted in large numbers, the majority of which were just fair to middling, many in the post-impressionist style typified by the Pont-Aven school, but which had a respectable offshoot here in the north of Brittany also.

The second exhibition was a short-run show of work by women sculptors from this departement to mark International Women's Day, and was held in a converted chapel opposite nearby. The chapel is a rather sombre and forbidding building from the outside, but inside proved to be a well-lit and conducive space. I loved these wooden shapes by Irene Le Goaster.

I don't find wrought and cut metal work, of which there was a certain amount, very sympathetic, though it was clever, but this critter from reclaimed materials was fun.

This one appeared to be making a comment, I assume from the air of cheerfulness of the figure a fairly sanguine one, on the future of women in the age of the Internet and the Euro.

These two, the first in ceramic, the second wood, seem to portray quite opposing visions of womanhood. The split, hollow and faceless wood form we found sad and disturbing.

My favourites though, I think, were some granite heads by Nathalie Reau.
Having worked with granite a little when I repointed the front of the house, I am hugely impressed by anyone who can cajole this material into beautiful shapes. Only the dressings of our house are made from cut blocks of the real hard granite, the rest of the walls are composed of some softer and browner granity type stuff ( I'm not a geologist!) which was probably just what was ploughed and dug out of the fields, and which breaks easily along a horizontal grain. However, just to chip neatly a little from the edge of the blue and mica speckled doorway stones with a cold chisel was heavy going.

Last year I saw a wonderful granite sculpture of a seal by the animal sculptor Jean Lemonnier, who is based at La Gacilly in Morbihan (unfortunately the website linked does not feature the seal, but other things of his). It was left rough and unpolished, which conveyed the massive ruggedness of both the animal and the coast where it lived. These heads were solid and chunky, but polished and with a subtlety of expression.

The one above is entitled 'Paternal Love'; he is strong, with much upward movement, possibly a little stern, but also, like all these faces, somwhat mischievous.

This one, I think my favourite, is 'The Goddess of Accomplishment'. I love the way her tongue protrudes slightly at the corner of her mouth, just as perhaps the sculptor's own does as she concentrates hard on achieving her task. But accomplissement also carries a sense of fulfillment, completion, repletion. She could also be seen as having the slit-eyed, far away, sleepy look of a satisfied woman.
And this fine character is 'The Lady of Perros'. That is to say Perros Guirrec on the Rose Granite Coast, to the north and the west of here, where the sea is blue and the rocks are pink and the Islands are Seven, and the granite is the finest.

( All photos taken with permission.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Spring fire

" Better close the windows, Victor's having a bonfire. Mad old fire-raiser!"

"Environmental polluter! Probably won't take his car to the tip, too dangerously close to the big city. Is that his daughter helping him?"

"Yeah... he's piling leylandii branches on it now. Still, smells better than the muck spreading."

Eighty-four years old, double hip replacement, six children, one gone before, wife died last year (and didn't she put up a brave one!). Gets his strength straight from th earth beneath his feet. Either that or the Calva he still makes at the alembic. God bless and keep him, and all the other stubborn buggers who won't give up.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Valley # 1

We are quite high here, up on the watershed. On the other side of the hill the streams and rivers flow down to the Atlantic, to the bonny bay of Biscay-o, on our side down to the Channel.
Capillaries of runnels and ditches, sometimes drained and piped, feed into nameless smaller streams which in turn feed the more substantial arteries, here the Evron and Gouessant, the latter flowing through Lamballe and out into the bay. The local farmers' trading co-operative is named after the Gouessant, which is slightly ironic as they are the ones who persistently pollute and generally disrespect it.

Soft grooves and undulations formed by these watercourses feather the landscape. I follow the road to where our land finishes and go left along the short voie communale into the fields, toward the columns of a double row of poplars planted along the banks of the emerging stream, whose coppery, balsamic-scented leaf-buds are only just forming, and then walk along the field edge overlooking the valley.

The farmed land, mainly pasture but sometimes ploughed for arable, is fenced by a single electric strand - one thing I do rejoice at here is an absence of barbed wire - then edged by a broken melee of brambles, beyond that is a narrow cleft of woodland with the stream at the bottom, a sliver of wildness and wet in an orderly green desert, too steep and unstable to allow the livestock into. The oaks are tall and straggling, and between are weed woods, hazel and elder, the occasional holly. The earth is soft and friable, there are no paths or tracks but random terraces formed by tree roots. It is continually shifting and re-forming, sometimes the ground subsides and trees fall, sometimes they are felled and logged and the smaller unwanted branches piled up haphazardly so that parts of it become inaccessible. For a time after these events the ground looks raw and ravaged, but quickly new growth takes place, and often plants which struggled before benefit from the access of light. The overturned trunks and dead stumps become small worlds colonised by other species.

We find a gap in the brambles and scramble down. This is a route I take mainly in the spring, from March to May but most especially in March. In the winter it is soggy and dour and uninviting, the fields leading to it frequently too trampled and smelly with cattle, in the summer and autumn the canopy becomes too thick and it is sombre and dull, the stream often low. I experience a not entirely disagreeable sense of discomfort, even of menace, here, for a number of reasons.

I have to walk with care, the footings are unreliable, what looks solid may be loose leaf mould, and the branch or stem I grasp at to save myself may well give way in my hand. I have a polished and ferruled forked walking stick I sometimes bring, which helps, and in the event of a twisted ankle would bring me home with greater ease, but my hands are full with dog lead and camera and I don't have it today. I like the activity of walking on steep and uneven ground with a stick; one's centre of gravity changes, the whole upper body is engaged, you become more like a four-footed thing. And this is the realm of the four-footed things.

The terraces and hollows and loose soil provide opportunities for homes for rabbits, foxes and badgers, all of which we've seen. Their front doors let onto the open fields, and these woods are their back gates and alleys. Once as we walked along the field edge a young cub, fuzzy pink-orange, emerged from an earth, his back to me, quite close; the back of the head and neck of all young things always looks so tender and vulnerable ( not only the young, Bergman drew attention to it in the elderly Victor Sjostrom in 'Wild Strawberries'...). In the moment I turned round to signal to Molly, who hadn't seen him, to stay, he was gone. Foxes here are not the insolent gangsters they have become in British towns and cities ( and good luck to them ); they are in evidence but discreet.

I know as I clump and crackle around their woods and as my dog snuffles at their holes, that the creatures who live below are in fear of us, our noise and our smells. Yet I too am nervous of them, quite irrationally, now I am in their domaine. Their resentment makes me uneasy, a feeling perhaps enhanced by the fact that the entrances to their holes and earths are at times on my eye level; my two-legged advantage is reduced. Perhaps too it is an atavistic anxiety I feel about venturing from the open plains into the forest margins, where once wild animals could pounce or slither from their lairs to do harm. But there is something about these earthdwellers, their invisible, chthonic lives down there which suggests dark possibilities to the imagination, predator and prey so close together, the terror of the rabbit who inadvertently strays within the labyrinth into the fox's or the badger's chamber... I doubt that these fantasies have any grounds in reality, but that world is very other to me. In the same way as birds do not suffer vertigo but fear enclosed spaces, so these animals are uneasy in the open spaces where I feel comfortable, but know nothing of claustrophobia. I am also a little afraid for my dog with her woolly ears poor sight and impractically shaggy coat, who, in comparison to the wild predators, seems effete and ill-equipped. She, however, is deliciously happy.
But the sense of the sinister not only comes from the innocent animals who live here. I feel that not only have I intruded into their meanstreets, but that I might possibly also encounter evidence of the darker side of human, particularly agricultural, activity. These waste and wooded corners are frequently used as refuse tips by farmers, though the ones who farm here, who are also my near neighbours, are responsible and clean. However, the water table is inevitably polluted by nitrates and other run-off, the stream looks pretty and clear but it is dead; the frogspawn and newts and salamanders older local people recall in every puddle and road ditch in their childhood are rarely seen now, and not here. And indeed, at the entrances to the foxholes are ribbons of initially unidentifiable whitish matter, which on closer inspection proves to be fish waste, skin, the odd head and tail, of dogfish and salmon. An egregious discovery which defies ready explanation; there is no fish processing plant near here, was it dumped from the road nearby, or has somebody been feeding seafish to pigs? Nasty, but it wouldn't surprise me, and could be nastier. Probably is. Molly exhibits essential animal nature and picks up a piece, but drops it when I bawl at her.
We descend to the floor of the valley.

The stream runs over sand and gravel, through a squelch of wet leaf mould, perpendicular green shoots and celandine,

and tufts of moorgrass as tall as myself.

Jungly ropes of ivy hang from the branches.

In a hollow I find them, this is what I came for, and why I always come in March.

I have observed a resistance, both in myself and others, to writing about and picturing daffodils. All Wordsworth's fault, I suppose, and, as someone partly named, I think, for his poor overlooked 'violet by a mossy stone' drippy heroine, I can see why people grew rather jaded with jonquils. In fact I love daffodils (and I'm still quite fond of Wordsworth ), including the big, loud, cadmium yellow ones which splatter springtime through every park and garden, the exquisitely fragranced paper-whites, and the delicate pheasant-eye narcissi that come later. But these small, pale woodland wild flowers, no more than eight inches high, are something finer and rarer. Next to the neon and halogen of the cultivars, these are sacred votive candles in the chapel of the wood. Their leek-green shoots are Persephone's nails spiking through winter's dead matter,

they are faery gold and precious beyond rubies. I pick a few, five perhaps, or sometimes seven, no more than one from any separate plant, to take home and put in a wineglass.

In May there will be bluebells all through the woods, joyous and more abundant than the daffodils. I'll try to get here for those, but somehow in the riot and profligacy of that month, they lack the acute and poignant urgency of these first messengers of spring.