[Image: 'November' - Carry Akroyd]

The hedger soakd wi the dull weather chops
On at his toils which scarcly keeps him warm
And every stroke he takes large swarms of drops
Patter about him like an april storm
The sticking dame wi cloak upon her arm
To guard against a storm walks the wet leas
Of willow groves or hedges round the farm
Picking up aught her splashy wanderings sees
Dead sticks the sudden winds have shook from off the trees
The boy that scareth from the spirey wheat
The mellancholy crow—quakes while he weaves
Beneath the ivey tree a hut and seat
Of rustling flags and sedges tyd in sheaves
Or from nigh stubble shocks a shelter thieves
There he doth dithering sit or entertain
His leisure hours down hedges lost to leaves
While spying nests where he spring eggs hath taen
He wishes in his heart twas summer time again

The Shepherds Calendar
(lines 37-54)

The chaffinch on the hedge row sings

The chaffinch on the hedge row sings
The matin bell from steeple rings
The rising sun its welcome brings
To dew bent flower & bee —
Around thy chimney swallows sing
Beneath thy Eaves the sparrows cling:

“My love my dear
Awake & hear
Thy Love waits for thee”

The linnet green as white thorn leaves
Of wool & moss a warm nest weaves
Where beds o' moss the dew receives
& still appears as dry —
The Robin from his root pops out
The brown hedge sparrow cheeps about:

“My life my dear
Awake appear
Thy Lover waiteth nigh”

Autumn 1841 - Northborough

Now melancholly autumn comes anew
With showery clouds & fields of wheat tanned brown
Along the meadow banks I peace pursue
& see the wild flowers gleaming up & down
Like sun & light—the ragworts golden crown
Mirrors like sunshine when sunbeams retire
& silver yarrow—there's the little town
& oer the meadows gleams that slender spire
Reminding me of one—& waking fond desire

I love thee nature in my inmost heart
Go where I will thy truth seems from above
Go where I will thy landscape forms a part
Of heaven—e'en these fens where wood nor grove
Are seen—their very nakedness I love
For one dwells nigh that secret hopes prefer
Above the race of women—like the dove
I mourn her abscence—fate that would deter
My hate for all things—strengthens love for her

(Child Harold lines 357-374)

The Sweetest Woman There

From bank to bank the water roars Like thunder in a storm
A Sea in sight of both the shores Creating no alarm
The water birds above the flood fly O'er the foam and spray
And nature wears a gloomy hood On this October day
And there I saw a bonny maid That proved my hearts delight
All day she was a Goddess made An angel fair at night
We loved and in each others power Felt nothing to condemn
I was the leaf and she the flower And both grew on one stem
I loved her lip her cheek her eye She cheered my midnight gloom
A bonny rose neath Gods own sky In one perennial bloom
She lives mid pastures evergreen And meadows ever fair
Each winter spring and summer scene The sweetest woman there
She lives among the meadow floods That foams and roars away
While fading hedge rows distant woods Fade off to naked spray
She lives to cherish and delight All nature with her face
She brought me joy morn noon and night In that low lonely place

In Autumn

The fields all cleared, the labouring mice
To sheltering hedge and wood patrol,
Where hips and haws for food suffice
That chumbled lie about the hole.
And squirrel, bobbing from the eye,
Is busy now about its hoard,
And in old nest of crow and pie
Its winter store is oft explored.
The leaves now leave the willows grey
And down the brook they wind:
So hopes and pleasures whirl away
And vanish from the mind.

Farewell to love and all I see

Farewell to love and all I see
In these dull English skies
For all the world turns round wi' me
Lost in thy two bright eyes

So fare-thee-well—a lover lost
I go where none can blame
And dearly shall I rue the cost
And scarcely keep a name

The little flowers and wild birds song
I leave them far away
In other lands and other tongues
A lonely bard to stray

In other lands I'll think of thee
Nor mortal love adore
The north star must its temple be
Where nought can change no more

Mary (A Ballad)

Love is past and all the rest
Thereto belonging fled away
The most esteemed and valued best
Are faded all and gone away

How beautiful was Mary's dress
While dancing at the meadow ball
—'Tis twenty years or more at least
Since Mary seemed the first of all

Lord how young bonny Mary burnt
With blushes like the roses hue
My face like water thrown upon't
Turned white as lilies i' the dew

When grown a man I went to see
The school where Mary's name was known
I looked to find it on a Tree
But found it on a low grave stone

Now is past—was this the now
In fine straw-hat and ribbons gay
I'd court her neath the white thorn bough
And tell her all I had to say

But all is gone—and now is past
And still my spirits chill alone
Loves name that perished in the blast
Grows mossy on a church-yard stone

(11th November 1848)

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: These views are his own).