Sunday, June 01, 2014

Meditations on moorland

Wendy recently posted a fine meditation on the psychology of landscape and people's response to a moorland, which more often than not an uncomfortable one: 'its very openness mistrusted for a lack of delineation and directive patterns'.

I was expecting myself to struggle more with a sense of fear and hostility to the landscape of the Monts d'Arrée, but I was curious to find out.  Wendy points out that the kind of person to whom the emptiness of moorland does appeal is 'not necessarily the clichéd solitary spirit of romantic literature'. In fact the one of the people who encouraged me to go there was my knitting buddy Soize, with her busy small town life and all its networks, her lively family, funny dog and hobby 2CV, but whose eyes kindled when she told me how she loved the desert landscape of the Monts, as did those of her cherubic twins when they showed me the photo album they'd put together of the trip and told me with glee that it was 'the Gates of Hell!'

And when I came to walk in that landscape, it was like a return, and I remembered that in fact I had loved moorland as a child, from chasing ponies on Dartmoor and Exmoor, to marvelling at the slopes of the Yorkshire moors (hoping vainly to see a merlin), to falling in love with the uplands of the Long Mynde in Shropshire on what turned out to be a sad family holiday (which I wrote about here, a long time ago).

Childhood literature fostered this rather, many of the adventure and pony books I remember reading (I was not a precocious reader, when I was a child I read as a child, so the menace and melancholy of Wuthering Heights, Hardy's Heath, and even Jamaica Inn I didn't come to till I was older) featured moorland as exciting and full of adventurous possibility, and somewhere often to which the characters ascended at epiphanic or transitional points of the narrative. I remember a description in (I think) an Arthur Ransome story where the moor is described as like a ragged counterpane thrown over the skeleton of the earth, with the rocks as bones showing through in the threadbare places, and a passage in a pre-war pony book, Jerry the Story of an Exmoor Pony (a hand-me-down from who knows when which I held in such nostalgia that I recently sought out and bought an old copy on-line) where the eponymous equine and his young rider follow a stag hunt, to a high and desolate part of upland where 'the moor looked wild and, even at this time of year, rather stern.  Colourless too, for there was very little heather, only crisp wiry grass. The very sheep looked different...' Everyone the boy knows has been left behind, including his father who has tired earlier with an injury,  he is among strangers.  A sudden storm washes the landscape, the hunt is abandoned, then the stag appears, to the boy's eyes only, from a thicket, but he says nothing, allowing its escape.  Yes, yes, I don't like bloodsports either but that's kind of mythic, isn't it?

No stags where we were in the Monts, that I know of, or even many sheep, though the last wolf survived there until 1906, but it is good horse country; we saw more evidence of horse riding and pony trekking her than elsewhere we've been in France.

For me though, much of the appeal of moorland, I think, is the juxtaposition of vast to small, macro to micro, the wide horizons and long views,

set against the fine detail of the flora and fauna and stone, detail which would be lost in a mass in a lusher landscape,

the counterpane may be threadbare, but it is nevertheless finely bejewelled and embroidered.  Much of my delight in the heathlands I discovered as a child was in the rich texture of the heather and in finding the succulent tiny jewels of bilberries, though it was too early for those now, in fact moorland comes into its full beauty perhaps in late summer, when more fertile country is often overblown and past its best.

On such an open and austere canvas, marks and lines, whether natural or man-made

acquire drama and power, indeed, human constructions and objects become quickly weathered into abstracts and emblems:  

It's worth rediscovering the moor.


(I should have got this post done a while ago, I've some excuse to plead that I've just been knocked over by some unpleasant flu type thing and have only just been able to face screen and keyboard.  I have more photos of the trip to post, and will try to do so before they are completely out-of-date!)


Zhoen said...

Never met a wild landscape that didn't stun me. Have never seen a moor, had to look it up for a definition, to mixed results.

I do love the badlands, though. Dunes, rocky shorelines, mountain meadows, salt flats, pine forests around deep glacial scars...

marja-leena said...

Really quite stunning, thanks to your fanaastic photos. Though I've not been on actual moors, they do make me think of a wet version of our drylands.

Your last photos is marvellous in its contrast to nature - a treminder of the human touch.

Take care and be well.

Francesca said...

The caterpillar is magnificent. And seeing horses ridden across a landscape is so timeless and moving, I don't know why.
Hope you feel better soon.

christopher said...

Yes, indeed. Resume. I would coddle you. I hope Tom does.

marja-leena said...

Enjoying another look...

Ack, so many typos! Sorry. Must not text on phone at the same time as writing a comment! Though I do make mistakes at the best of times....

Dale said...

So sorry you've been ill!

Lovely, lovely countryside. Makes me wonder if the fields I used to wander through when I was a boy are still there. (I suppose Google would tell me. These days, you wonder something like that, and then you have to wonder, "do I really want to know that?")

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Yes, wonderful photos and text.You have a way of making me think about things I don't usually think of.

I love deserts and big empty open landscapes but not so much in northern climates. Cold,wet,windy, dark weather seems to turn off all my appreciative antennae so that I see and feel nothing except a desire to be be back indoors, warm. I would have relocated Wuthering Heights to somewhere like New Mexico or the Sahara. Nit quite the same thing, I know.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

....NOT quite the same thing

Ellena said...

As a child I read about someone who was sucked into moorland. With these photos you succeeded in erasing the spookiness of moorland from my mind.

Jean said...

Oh. I love moorlands, Yorkshire being the place I have most felt at home. Great photos.

and love the new header!

Fire Bird said...

Lovely photographs and interesting thoughts about the sometimes challenging moorland landscape that is now my back yard. Hope you feel better soon x

Lucy said...

Thanks all. Fluey thing more or less passed off now just leaving me a bit tired and careful. Tom, and Mol, looked after me very well.

Zhoen - I don't know if there's a north American equivalent of moorland, or weather it's a product of north European climate and geology. It is somewhat varied, not always just one thing. I associated it with the UK and didn't know it was so readily on offer here.

ML - I loved those galvanised tensioner things. I thought perhaps they had a gestalt quality but I'm never quite sure if I'm using that word right so didn't venture to do so in the text!

Dale - Yes, the technolgy is a mixed blessing. I feel that way about people from the past, one of my reasons for avoiding FB.

Natalie - ah, you are a desert flower! There's a theory that the Bretons located Hell hereabouts because a burning hot place seemed too desirable and cosy for them! (I quite liked 'nit'.)

Ellena - I believe there are such hazards to be found, bogland (unlike blogland) is to be avoided in places, and the moor is in some ways a hostile place. But coastal sand is just as treacherous yet beaches don't get such a bad press.

Jean - thanks, and for noticing the header. Another Rilke reference, as they have been for some time now.

FB - when I first saw the Yorkshire moors, in brilliant summer, I was wonderstruck. Seeing them with you in winter they did feel difficult, it's colder up there than here too. Well worth reading Wendy's post too, her thoughts better articulated and deeper than mine.

Roderick Robinson said...

My first reaction was entirely territorial. Moors? What's Lucy doing in my countryside? And when I used the link it turned out you'd been tracking all over my adopted countryside - Malvern, Much Wenlock no doubt, and especially Long Mynd. But since you were here before me I guess you were entitled to write about it. Given your prodigies with the single-speed bike in steep-sided Malvern you'll be amused to learn that during the year we spent deciding where to move to from Kingston-upon-Thames we ruled out Malvern; both of us saw five years - then ten years - ahead and envisaged the trek to pick up The Guardian getting the better of us.

Nor did the associations end there. Once, when we were living in sin in London, VR murmured to herself "and all's to do again" and I needed to know the what and the who. So there's a tiny bit of AEH too though I've been lazy and I've only recently picked up the collected poems (my mother's copy which I inherited) and started reading.

As to moors they're lot nearer to Bradford than most people imagine. In old age my mother moved to a tiny cottage on the fringe of Baildon Moor - a typically romantic and impractical gesture on her part - and when I flew back from Pittsburgh for her funeral I renewed my acquaintance with this very special landscape which defeats most photographers but not you. My mother wanted her ashes spread over Baildon Moor and this led to farce which I've already described. In writing Blest Redeemer an opportunity arose to describe a bus journey across Goathland Moors, west of Whitby. Having read your post I realise now I could have taken better advantage of this than I did.

Then the other world of Long Mynd and more steepness, leading to the somewhat perfunctory structures associated with the gliding club. A place of silence but it's not, is it. The wind (of Long Mynd) is always at work.

I was wrong to be territorial. Landscape is both a reality and an abstraction and that shifting perception should be shared with friends. I'm glad you were here and there (even if "there" is a moor I'm not familiar with) and I'll look out for future moor-ish references in Box Elder. On Friday we hope to be crossing the line of latitude that intersects the Evreux - Dreux road and links to the fixed point of your village. No time for sentimentality, however. In between will be Rennes of evil memory.

Lucy said...

Hello Robbie,

The holiday we had when I was about 13, chiefly Yorkshire dales but taking in some moors too, I remember passing through Bradford in the same trip as moorland, and of course, going to Saltaire with Fire Bird (above) from Hebden Bridge over the top of them. Now I do find much of the north of England quite challenging and alien, when I was younger I took to the wildness and difference much more readily, which indicates later cultural prejudices at work, the earlier ones - lots of Arthur Ransome and James Herriot and Fell Farm adventures etc were more positive. Frankly seeing it that December it was bloody cold and grey, not that Brittany wasn't but by then this was home.

Glad you've picked up AEH. One of the beauties is that you can read the complete works from cover to cover in a day or so, in fact it benefits from so doing and is really a quite satisfying and consistent whole.

My mother made a similar rather whimsical move to a cottage in Somerset, which proved unsatisfactory and problematical. Realistic assessment of the manageability of fetching one's Guardian may seem dull and fatalistic but are eminently sensible. However, it did afford me opportunities to explore Ham Hill and the Levels by bike. That was ten + years after the Malverns period but I was still depressingly much fitter than now. Must get a bike again.

Oddly, I was never much aware of the gliders on the side of the Mynde where we stayed, though we passed it on the passage over. I'd like to go back there again too, I've collected quite a lot of pictures of it on Pinterest.

Have a wonderful time in the Languedoc and good luck on the peripherique!

Lucas said...

A sense of being in a wide open space is counterbalanced by fine detail. Great photos Lucy, with my favourites being the purple flowers and moss amongst grey rocks (9) and the wooden steps climbing up into the horizon against a grey/white sky (18). Also, I think there is an interesting link that the books we read or have read to us a children may well shape our response to landscapes as adults.

Lucy said...

Francesca - I missed you off. I hadn't quite realised how much I'd missed horses being ridden in the landscape, it's a rare sight in our part of Brittany and generally in France I think compared to the UK. The roadsides verges are very unsuitable, and there are fewer dedicated paths. Horses are shown but more often exercised on private land, I think, but this area is apparently known for for being horse friendly. The line of trekkers I heard clip-clopping up the hillside road before I saw them, it was rather magical.

Lucas - Thanks. There is little in the plants I've caught here that was especially typical of moorland, but they stand out more. I read a lot of old fashioned adventure stories and pony books which celebrated countryside of one kind or another, but moors often seemed to feature. I do also remember responding quite young to being up on hills and in front of open elevated views, I wonder if children generally appreciate being raised up a bit above their small stature!

Rouchswalwe said...

Moor and Heath ... I've never experienced these live in person. Somehow, I've always associated them with fog. Amazing landscapes they are here in your post. And quite interesting for me because I seem to have lived near rivers and mountains most of my life.

the polish chick said...

your description both of the moors and of people's reaction to them reminds me very much of the desert, the pictures of which i will be sending to you and tom in the next little while. there are those who fear it and find it desolate, but to me, it makes my heart sing.

your pictures are, as always, beautiful. you have such an eye!