Posts Tagged ‘loss’

No temple but the wood

March 14, 2011

Magnolia – photograph by Liz Mathews

London is a green city. Indeed, parts of it are now classified as an ‘urban forest’.  The combination of parks, street trees and many gardens (including roof-gardens) makes it one of the greenest of all ancient cities.  Most Londoners meet a tree or two every day, many of us are lucky enough to see dozens of them out of the windows.  As David Constantine puts it in his poem Birdsong:

We think our common road a choir of trees.

There are tree-cultish books, not aimed at much-derided tree-huggers, directing people to the remarkable trees of various areas.  Everyone has their own favourites; the giant planes of Brunswick Square, which survived the wartime destruction of most of the surrounding buildings (perhaps protected by the charm of Handel’s aria composed in their praise); the magnolias on St. Mary-le-Strand’s precarious island mid-Aldwych; the parade of blossom on one ordinary residential street or the elegant chestnut avenue along another.

Trees don’t live forever, and they need some looking after.  Councils also have to protect them from the philistines who are afraid of trees and see them only as nuisances that make shade, block gutters, shelter birds – which are also perceived as nuisances – raise their roots and have a sinister urge to crush or poison people unless they are felled or poisoned first.  (Perhaps this is the last remnant of an early anti-pagan representation of sacred trees as harbouring malign deities?)

Pro-tree neighbours periodically have to link hands around a threatened tree to protect it from illegal destruction, but this support is sometimes taken to extremes; our local tree-surgeon told me that he’s often abused as a ‘murderer’ by wrathful passers-by if he has to fell a rotten or dangerous tree.  But the worst threat is still building.  Eighty years ago, Charlotte Mew wrote her searing lament The Trees are Down – so not much changes.

They are cutting down the great plane trees at the end of the gardens…

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade today;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half of my life has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,

In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

They must have heard the sparrows flying,

And the small creeping creatures in the earth when they were lying –

But I, all day I heard an angel crying:

‘Hurt not the trees.’

As this poem makes so clear, trees are free, for everyone; their beauty makes a place which people feel is home.

The pastoral ideal of a sylvan grove has a long pedigree in English, and its transfer to the urban environment seems an essential element of its 21stC survival. (These trees shall be my books…) In this romantic spirit, I was pleased to encounter our local ‘urban forester’, an Ent-like tree-keeper, I imagined, a contemporary wood-warden.  But, having been in contact with him, I’m less thrilled to discover that in Islington, hitherto one of the greenest boroughs, tree-planting – like everything else – will be cut in future. So, although the two missing trees from our street-corner spinney may yet be replaced, because residents have asked for them, such re-planting won’t happen again.

Just as government-owned rural ancient woodland will vanish when it’s sold off, so the urban forest will inevitably shrink, if the trees are not cared for or re-planted.  According to the Ents, the benefits of city trees include (but are not limited to) the fact that they: filter airborne dust and pollution, increase air quality, absorb traffic noise, reduce temperature extremes, generate breezes, provide shade, increase privacy, give food and nesting sites for birds and insects, improve quality of life, reduce stress, give proven psychological and health benefits, increase local property values [!], help prevent flooding.

So, if we want to continue being able to live in a green city, we must protect our trees even more carefully than we do already.  This piecemeal destruction of ‘forests’ close to home is yet another unnecessary imposition, presented as inevitable among far worse cuts, just a very minor item on the agenda.  But, as Philip Pullman made clear in his superb lyrical speech against library closures, these false dichotomies and competitions for funds are merely a tactic of ‘divide and rule’; there is no need to choose between such extremes.  It’s just another small, important, thing to add to the list of unacceptable losses against which we will be protesting at the demonstration on March 26th.

Making the sun rise

May 18, 2010


Beech Cathedral – photograph by Liz Mathews

The human experience is controlled by vision – as expressed in poetry or in painting – without these the human experience lapses into dark – They are like the rising sun which changes human experience – and old poems of yesterday however wonderful are the poems of yesterday and one must magic to-day’s sun to rise and be the sun, and staunch your death.

(Winifred Nicholson to Kathleen Raine, quoted in Winifred Nicholson by Christopher Andreae).

Winifred Nicholson wrote many profound texts about art, some of which can be read on the website of her work (where I like to Have a Picture in my Room is particularly beautiful). The passage quoted above seems to contain a manifesto about the uses of art which is universal, despite its evident origins as a personal plea to a poet friend to write on, even in difficult circumstances.

The biographer of Winifred Nicholson records that her grandfather (also an artist) told her, perhaps in joke, that since there was already such a daunting quantity of ‘pictures’ in the world, it was her duty to paint ‘good and small’. This much later fragment of letter touches on the same issue for a writer or artist; why – since so much transcendent art already exists – create more? (Sometimes the weight of the past can seem smothering…)

Her statement about the need for art – without it human existence ‘lapses into dark’ – contains both an acknowledgement of the crucial importance of old art, which has illuminated the past and remains necessary to our understanding of the present, and the belief that new art is also essential to bring contemporary human experience into the world of light, not darkness.

The poetic truth stated here, that the artist must ‘magic today’s sun’ not only to rise, but also to be itself, expresses with extraordinary exactitude the mysterious necessity of creating new light, contemporary day, which will help to keep the darkness away, banish the long night. As for the staunching of death; art performed that strange task for many with miraculous success in the past, so it may work for us, too. Worth a try?

Pastoral no more

April 28, 2010


Clear skies – photograph by Liz Mathews

Writing about the romance of finding the natural world in unexpected places, Kathleen Raine speculated that:

‘Paradise perhaps always retains the aspect of whatever images first reflected it back to us… a dispossessed unheeded beauty – the quarry, the urban park, London trees at night – an image of lost paradise, on the outskirts of the human and urban world.’

This poignant sense that she can only see the little that remains after the Fall, the remnants of some imagined paradise, sounds a strong echo now, when the loss of natural world seems no remote myth but a contemporary happening. The human condition, before, was always to feel a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian lost Eden, a better place we once knew. Now, that loss lies in the future, literally, as well as the imagined past; as though a new enactment of the old story is taking place before an unwilling or indifferent audience.

Of course it’s still possible to find places where the heavenly beauty of the natural world survives; in the great happiness of those moments the rose seems without a thorn, mortality can be forgotten. (Though perhaps it’s always been closer to our human state to weep that the daffodils must haste away so soon, to stand in the showers of white blossom already blowing down, to feel part of that natural order of change.)

So much art, for so long, has mapped that ‘Garden’ of our inner landscape, or lamented the exile from it, as well as celebrating nature, or protesting against the various forms of devastation which have always threatened it. But now the pastoral is a protest against more urgent loss.

In a poem about the destruction of the environment, Raine couldn’t resist expressing an unquenchable optimism in the powers of the natural world:

And on this doomed decaying city rise
on the last days as on the first,
these marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

Accidentally discovered ‘dispossessed unheeded beauty’ is made all the more precious by its fragility. So we still snatch beauty where we can find it, not waiting only for the rare moments of absolute perfection. Often, the reward is a mixed blessing, rather like the images Raine observed; the magnolia tree flowering alone in a valley of tower blocks; the goldfinch perched on barbed wire. They express our contemporary situation with a strange exactitude.

In the exhilarating moment when the sky was empty of planes, silenced by the volcano, it was possible to imagine, briefly, what the world could be like if paradise wasn’t paved for a parking-lot, if we could once again think of its imperfections as only just less than heaven, rather than an impending loss of earth.