Putting my land-longing into words

[Heartland, near Helpston, Northamptonshire, home of John Clare]

THE English language is frequently the victim of fashion. It contains words that have fallen from use, those whose meaning has been transmogrified, and a bewildering array of new terms. It also contains potentially useful words that have scarcely been discovered, including some that could be of immense value to us. “Heartland” is one such word.

The Oxford Dictionary pays it scant attention, defining it merely as “the central or most important part of an area”. The use of the word “area” here is disappointingly vague and rather devalues the overall con­cept. It seems as if heartland lacks reson­ance with us, being confined in everyday use to media statements about such things as NATO troops penetrating the Taliban heartland. But the word may yet develop useful depth.

The concept of cynefin — in some ways similar to heartland — is central to Welsh language and cul­ture, though it has no straight­for­ward translation. It is a spiritual and poetic idea concerning relation­ship with a place of true belonging, ex­pressed primarily through the Welsh language.

Bedwyr Lewis Jones (a former Professor of Welsh at Bangor Uni­versity) argues: “Cynefin is the Welsh­man’s first and foremost window on the world.” Scots Gaelic appears to have an equivalent word, duthchas. The Welsh language also includes the concept of hiraeth, which in its extreme form is a spiritual sickness that develops when one’s cynefin is broken.

The life of John Clare (1793-1864), poet, naturalist, and profound countryman, is worth examining through the perspectives of cynefin and hiraeth. The landscape of his homeland, around the village of Helpston, in Northamptonshire, was his heartland, his real and fantasy worlds combined. But that landscape was ruthlessly destroyed by En­closures Acts early in his adult life. Worse, he was tempted to London and the bright lights.

There, however, something funda­mental was missing; he broke down and was confined to an asylum. Yet home was calling him. He escaped and walked back to Help­ston, a beggar forced to eat grass. But home was no longer recognisable; his cynefin lay shattered. He spent the last 30 years of his life in a lunatic asylum.

CLARE’s fall may have resonance for many of us. I went off the rails when, as a student, I became entombed within a city a long way from the woods and meadows where my soul dwelt. Strangely, home was not the West Country landscape where I was born and raised, but the woods of the West Sussex Weald where I went to school.

Few people can have felt more alienated from a boarding-school system than me, yet none has loved their school’s landscape surround­ings more. On leaving university, I went to work on the land, half-recognising that I was suffering from the spiritual sickness of nature-deficit disorder, long before Richard Louv coined the term and laid out a convincing thesis for it in Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2006).

Cynefin is important to us all, to a lesser or greater extent, if only for the emotive and yin-yang senses of longing and belonging it instils. In which case, we must ask what is happening to our kind as we become progressively urbanised or sub-urbanised, as our contextual setting regresses further away from nature. Small wonder, then, that there are so many second homes in the country­side, owned by urban man — who seeks cynefin, which lies in not urbi, but rure.

To explain why we turn away from nature, where our true cynefin lies — besides referring to the obvious lure of materialism — I would point to a line of sublime depth by T. S. Eliot: “Human kind Cannot bear very much reality” (Murder in the Cathedral and Burnt Norton, 1935). The line, spoken by a bird in the poem, primarily concerns there our relationship with nature. Seemingly, we feel that nature, like God, demands too much of us.

I WOULD argue that the word heartland should be developed in the English language as the equivalent of cynefin, as it represents a concept that should be fundamental in our culture, our spirituality, and in poetic use of language. Such usage is seri­ously out of vogue at present, as our language is becoming dominated by professional “industry” speech based on science and business cul­ture.

So often, a word has a standard­ised meaning within professional lan­guage, but variable or little meaning elsewhere. For example, a recent DEFRA survey of public un­der­stand­ing of environmental terms con­cluded: “Biodiversity was not under­stood, and even when ex­plained it was not engaging.” So much for the king-pin word of the environmental movement.

Poetic language must have a central part to play in commun­ication on environmental, spiritual, and religious issues — not least because, in addition to a literal sense, it offers tiers of meaning. Jonathan Bate gives a cogent argument to this effect in The Song of the Earth (Picador, 2000), emphasising that the poetic approach is “our way of stepping outside the frame of the technological, of reawakening the momentary wonder of unconceal­ment”.

Tennyson hit the nail on the head in In Memoriam: “For words, like Nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within.”

Our inability, or refusal, to think in, and use, poetic language hinders us terribly. In particular, it prevents us from seeing the big picture, which in turn can lead us to becoming ob­sessed with and blinded by detail.

This could well be one of our main cultural problems. To take one of St Paul’s many profound state­ments out of context, though with honest intent, we struggle to cope with the spirit, and so the letter killeth. The word heartland must have a central part to play in helping us understand our­selves, our spirituality, our relation­ship with nature and our environ­ment, and with the Almighty.

Church Times - 1st October 2010
Matthew Oates
(a naturalist, writer, and broadcaster working for the National Trust. He is a co-founder of VINE (Values in Nature and Environ­ment: www.vineproject.org.uk). These views are his own).

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