Lawrence Buell (The Environmental Imagination, 1995), writes that Thoreau practices the embedment of pretty pastoral rooms within a radical critique of urbanism and chastises him for turning away from social confrontation "for the sake of immersion in a simplified Green world". The environmental movement is predicated on a similar tendency to valorize the wild and to pillory the urban for whatever faults it sees in our world now or in an imagined future. Here at Urban Wildland, I attempt a fluid analysis of our predicament which privileges neither urban nor wild and indeed, neither past nor present: our shared future is the river in which these temporal and physical tributaries come together. Our individual consciousness is influenced by similar complexities of time and material circumstance, and in the black and white textual rooms to which I fully admit to retreating, there continue to be useful revelations pertinent to an understanding of the process. Hence this week’s Book Report.
Joan Grant was an extraordinary English writer who wrote the global best seller Winged Pharaoh, a historical romance, in 1937. She first visited the United States in 1914 aboard the Lusitania (yes, the very same ship that was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1916 and became the proximate cause for America's entry into WWI) and returned in 1964 with her third husband Denys Kelsey (known to her as 'K', like Krishnamurti, in what is unlikely to have been an entirely unconscious conflation) on the Queen Elizabeth to visit the center for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach where she and Denys would lecture on Reincarnation. Now, her granddaughter Nicki Bennett (a recently widowed, treasured friend in Ojai), is returning to England on the Queen Mary II to take up residence in Edinburgh.
There is, between these several voyages, a fascinating tale which I will leave Nicki to weave. But before she left, I took a shrink wrapped copy of A Lot to Remember, 1962, Grant's travel memoir re-issued in 1980, beautifully cloth bound in a pale sage green, no dust jacket, but instead a purple imprint of the author's mesmeric eyes and bewitching eyebrows on the front cover, from a carton of same before placing the box in a storeroom of the Ojai house which Nicki has now left.
The book concerns the author's time in the Dordogne, and focuses on the architectural and scenic splendors of the towns and villages along the river Lot and on life amidst the Lotoise, particularly those involved in what we would now call the hospitality industry. It is, to be frank, a slight volume both in heft and literary pretension, but it is enlivened by Joan's psychic relations with what she calls 'spooks' which inhabit an alternate plane of reality to which she is acutely attuned. The region's history is drenched in bloody dynastic and religious rivalries and grotesqueries lurk in ruined manorial piles, chateaux, abbeys and fortifications scattered amidst the now placid countryside. Eternally damned torturers, murderers and fallen priests are sent on the way of reincarnation by Joan's sensitive analysis of their plight and her powers of love and forgiveness - expressed in Christic epigrams, presumably delivered in her fractured French.
At other times, she fully inhabits her role as a prototypical upper-middle class bohemian Englishwoman dispensing gobs of noblesse oblige over the French countryside. Accompanied by her second husband and later by her third, gallivanting, gormandizing and practicing what she calls her Far Sight, she is at once entertaining and annoyingly precious. The couples’ choice of steed is carefully selected for their progress along farm tracks, minor ‘D’ roads, rustic Rue Principales and Routes Nationales, the system of ‘N’ roads which largely follow ancient Roman routes; for it is an Armstrong Siddeley, perhaps a Sapphire, which has as its hood ornament a sphinx, adopted as the company's logo in 1912 after a journalist described an early model as ‘as silent and inscrutable as the sphinx'. One of Joan's alter egos (or more accurately, previous incarnations) is Sekeeta, the daughter of a Pharoah and heroine of her first book. Joan enjoyed many lives in Egypt, recollecting them in another three Far Memory books, Eyes of Horus (1942), Lord of the Horizon (1943) and So Moses was Born (1952). Looking across the long-hooded car, the sphinx imperiously leading the way, the French countryside is deconstructed beneath her penetrating gaze.
Jonathon Bate's exhaustive biography, John Clare (2003), is my current sleepy-time, lights-out soporific. ‘The peasant poet’, was one of a cohort of British Romantic poets in the early nineteenth century, which included, most famously, Keats, Byron, Cowper and Tennyson. Clare was briefly famous in the 1820’s, but his work began to gain a new level of popularity in the 1980’s and continues to be discovered by readers charmed by his poetic descriptions of the English countryside and galvanized by his outrage at the injustices of the Enclosure movement which restricted the rights of landless peasants in a process by which highly profitable monocultures replaced small scale arable crops and common-land grazing. Much of the land of which he writes is simultaneously under the threat of creeping Industrialization. Reading him is to experience our world foretold, of nature scarred and compromised and society riven by ever increasing economic injustice.
Ironically, the impoverished Clare, who made almost nothing from his infrequent publications, was supported by members of the aristocracy and for a while became a literary mascot to several of the noble houses which surrounded his humble cottage on the edge of the fens in what is now Cambridgeshire. Briefly feted in London, he risked being integrated into high society but his manic behavior saw him, instead, institutionalized first in a private hospital in Essex and then in a public Lunatic asylum in Northampton where he wrote perhaps his most famous poem, ‘ I Am’, which ends with a fine, transcendentalist howl,
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.
He longed to retreat, in other words, from padded cell to pastoral room. Turned solipsistic in his dotage, he abandons his social gaze and is transformed into an admitted “self-consumer of my woes”. Perhaps, a nineteenth century incarnation of Joan could have helped him, for Joan practiced psychotherapy with #2 Charles Beatty and #3 Denys Kelsey in Britain the U.S. and France. Employing a kind of regression therapy, she believed that diagnosing unresolved issues from past lives could assist in the treatment of the patient’s neuroses in their present incarnation. Clare’s hold on his identity was always tenuous – he identified with Byron to the point of re-writing that aristocrat’s poems and on occasion believed that he was Shakespeare. He explained, with admirable candor, “I‘m John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly”.
One of the appeals of Clare’s work is that it is the expression of a true rustic. He knew of what he wrote in a way that Wordsworth, for instance, did not. Clare was a participant in nature, Wordsworth an observer. The nature they both wrote about was part of a pastoral tradition: a land tamed over the ages for the benefit of its human inhabitants. Enclosure represented an extension of pastoralism not its beginnings. Thoreau’s ‘simplified green world’ was, in the case of Walden, an island of second growth forest in a largely deforested countryside. Joan traveled through a similarly compromised environment, but it was exactly the human imprint to which she was attracted, for in that lay the psychic reverberations which were her true subject. Her pastoral rooms existed as traps for superannuated spooks.
My pastoral rooms, to quote Thoreau, “are made out of Chaos and Old Night”. They are not pastoral at all – they are wild, “not mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, not waste-land” - but primal chaparral. This week has been warm and the winds strong. The other evening I arrived home to find that a dead Deerweed plant (Lotus scoparius) had blown up against the front door. It was largely spherical - perhaps three feet in diameter - and it glowed a fiery orange in the sun’s last rays. It appeared as a burning bush, heralding the presence of the wild within the precinct of our home.
My green world is aflame: it is a threat, not a comfort - and there is, I realize, no turning away from the Urban Wildland.