Friday, 18 January 2013

“I turn homeward, still wondering” - Aldo Leopold

The 30th Annual Meeting of the SW/TX Popular Culture Assoc./ACA - February 24–28, 2009, Albuquerque, New Mexico

“I turn homeward, still wondering”


“All seems familiar, even the hurried greetings/Seem those of friends, every face seems a kindred one”1  


This Paper is a journey. It explores what it means to dwell and I’ll begin by quoting Jonathan Bate, taken from his book ‘The Song of the Earth’

To dwell you must be content to listen, to hear the music of the shuttle. [Basil Bunting’s poem] ‘Briggflatts’ begins by inviting a ‘sweet tenor bull’ to descant on the ‘madrigal’ of a place as ‘A mason times his mallet/to a lark’s twitter’: the poem’s essential lexis is aural. There is a distinctive sound to every bioregion, whether Bunting’s Northumbria, with its herring gull and running beck, or Wilson’s rain forest, with its honking leptodactylid frog and echoing howler monkey. But there is also an undersound, a melody heard perhaps only by the poet, which harmonizes the whole ecosystem.2

Bate’s passage , I think, pulls together many of the essential strands that for me address the issue of dwelling. He states that the undersound is ‘a melody heard perhaps only by the poet’ but I would suggest that it can be heard by anyone who is willing to listen.

My own bioregion is Cumbria, in the northwest of England; its borders are Scotland, Northumbria, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Irish Sea.  It has a history of Border Raids with the Scots, of being inhabited by the Romans, who built Hadrian’s Wall and whose soldiers and masons came from all over the Roman Empire: Bulgaria, Spain, the Mediterranean, Persia; its language and roots are a mix of Celtic, Old Norse, Latinate and Saxon. So what ‘undersong’ do I hear when I step outside my front door, go walking along the becks (Icelandic word for stream), or into the dales and onto the fells? Behind the mundane sounds of traffic, low flying aircraft, the hum of this computer, there are connections I imaginatively make with them, aircraft flying west make me imagine my next trip to America, this computer’s humming reminds me of the ease with which we can connect with people globally. Underpinning the moment are deeper undersongs:  the seasonal departure and arrival of the geese that take the same flight path as the practising jets.

Besides, or beneath, the melody of this bioregion, this place, there’s a reaching back in time to the song of my childhood, the strong West Cumbrian familial burr, composed of Irish and North Eastern accents, the rich, but cautiously given, stories of farmers and life as it ‘used to be’ in the valleys, who’re reticent until they ‘know’ you.

In order to explore the continuities of the ‘inner undersong’ I’ve chosen to compare the writings of two men separated by a century – the 19thC British peasant poet, John Clare and the 20th C American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, who’s Wilderness area is not far from here – following two different routes to understanding the ways in which we carry with us and transmit our own individual/particular experiences of dwelling. Indeed, ‘anyone who is willing to listen’ can attune their inner ear to the undersong of their own bioregion.

John Clare

I’ve chosen John Clare as a starting point because his writing and life intersect with my feelings about the nature of rootedness in a single place.

I will begin by examining a poem by Clare, titled ‘The Lark’s Nest’. The following lines express Clare’s innocent joy at discovering not only a nest, but also one with new laid eggs inside:

            ‘Behind a clod how snug the nest
            is in a horse’s footing fixed!
            Of twitch and stubbles roughly dressed,
            With roots and horsehair intermixed.
            The wheat surrounds it like a bower,
            And like to thatch each bowing blade
-       and here’s an egg this morning laid!’
(ll. 7-14) 3
The form of the poem matches its content. It is tightly woven, with an ababcdd end rhyme scheme. Clare envisages the nest as being built in the same way a thatched cottage is constructed, down to the roots, horsehair and clod, in the same way a lath and plaster wall is made. There is a sense of trust, which Clare recognises, in the way the nest lies ‘behind a clod’, a lump of earth that the horse drawn plough has created. The unspoken image of a plough horse’s heavy hoof enhances the trust exhibited by the skylark who has chosen to build her nest in the field. When one discovers the tragedy experienced by Clare in his later life, through his alienation from his beloved Helpstone, poems such as ‘The Lark’s Nest’ become more poignant. Let me quote from ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period’ about Clare’s disorientation upon removal from Helpstone:

… but now, everything was strange and unfamiliar. He describes the effect with an extraordinary adjective that powerfully suggests an undermining of his self-hood:
            ‘Strange scenes mere shadows are to me
                Vague unpersonifying things …’ (‘The Flitting, ll 89-90)

In the process of removal Clare has become an unperson, anticipating the rootless and nomadic sensibility of modern society.4

Clare’s experience helps one to articulate some of the most fundamental questions underlying the dialogue between rootedness and migrancy - how do we, can we, feel at home on the earth, if we also have a sense of alienation, of becoming an ‘unperson’? What do we carry within us that remains ‘home’ and enables us to dwell away from ‘home’ and where inside do we carry it? The answers to these questions lie in our internal space – or our internal ability to recreate external worlds we’ve inhabited; they lie in our memories, our imaginations and a desire to share it with others. I’d like to quote Timothy Clark on Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Holderlin’s poem ‘Homecoming’:

For Heidegger, after Holderlin’s own poetics and practice, the act of the poem itself, in the time of its being read, is itself such a homecoming process.5

To return to Clare, prior to his removal from Helpstone, he had felt ‘at home’ alone, yes, but not lonely, for, as with Leopold, he had the company of the ‘ordinary’ things of nature, … at Helpstone he had felt that,

                 every weed and blossom too
            was looking upward in my face
            with friendship’s welcome ‘how do ye do’
                                                                        (‘The Flitting, ll 126-128)6

Aldo Leopold

At first glance Clare and Leopold appear unusual ‘bedfellows.’ However, close examination of their writings draws them together. Leopold, writing a hundred years on from Clare, nonetheless reflects and harmonises with him on the ways in which we establish and transmit to others our internal sense of dwelling in a particular place.

Leopold’s autobiographical work, ‘A Sand County Almanac’ is mainly a collection of observations of daily life spent on his farm in Sand County, his reflections on the life he shared with flora and fauna of the region, its geology, weather patterns and farmers, hunters and tenants of the area. It includes a ‘Series of sketches here and there’ where he writes of his life spent in other parts of the USA., including New Mexico.

As with Clare, solitude was important to Leopold. In his book, ‘A Sand County Almanac, he says, “Solitude, the one natural resource still undowered of alphabets, is so far recognized as valuable only by ornithologists and cranes.”8 One of the uses he made of this solitude is concentration on acts of interpretation which are ways of establishing our sense of the connections and rhythms underlying external phenomena. Such interpretive activity is itself a means of ‘carrying’ transitory experiences, both for our own sake, as we retain and constitute our own sense of self from these insights, and for others. If we can grasp underlying patterns we can then transmit our understanding to others, and equally others can reciprocate by transmitting theirs to us.

The idea of dwelling and the ability to ‘read’ and understand such things as signs and inscriptions of clouds, birds, wind, ice and seasons of a particular environment, was also important to Leopold. Here’s what he has to say about the arrival of geese in Spring,

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that, twice a year, proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.9

Throughout this book, Leopold reminds the reader that we can learn from the flora and fauna, the weather and seasons of our environments, not in the Romantic sense of Nature being a Benevolent Mother, or Parent, [my capitalisation] but in a practical way, combining a sense of wonder with that of survival. Reading the signs is how indigenous people not only survived, but passed on their knowledge of the best places to hunt, to get water and gather food, to their children, through stories and myth. ‘To know thyself’ from the Greek, gnosis, I would suggest also means having an intimate knowledge of knowing where one lives and also one’s roots – the two may not always be the same, but we can try, as Seamus Heaney suggests, to ‘reconcile more than one cultural identity’. 10

Leopold has a poet’s eye for the way in which small observed details can be freighted with much wider meaning and connections. He demonstrates that the reader can learn from a single plank of driftwood, thrown up from a recent flood:

Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay. One can even guess, from the abrasions of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past. 11

This ability to observe the complex nature of one’s dwelling place also enables the observer to transcend his or her own limited perspective and to understand, or begin to, the nature of other dwelling places and ways of feeling at home or, indeed, feelings of alienation. By understanding one we can begin to understand the ‘other’.

Clare and Leopold also have the ability to allow the reader to enter into their world and not only inhabit the poem or prose, but inhabit a world depicted by their writing. In Clare’s case, a lark’s nest, hidden behind a clod of earth. The description of it allows the reader/listener to imagine what it would feel like to be that lark;

in Leopold’s case, that of a muskrat. The following is a quote from Leopold:

Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails. Our geese are home again!

It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh. 12

What both writers convey is the importance of imagining oneself into a new perspective, other than that of a two legged, upright animal, a perspective closer to the ground, with a different view of the world. Without any fuss, Clare and Leopold convey through their writing, a sense of wonder and excitement to the reader/listener in a subtle and down to earth way. They both recognise that the same thing that creates a sense of wonder also carries with it a fragility and vulnerability, as J.R. Watson observes:

This kind of perception gives a sharp edge to Clare’s poetry and a deeper meaning to his natural descriptions: a wild flower is not just pretty, but it is part of an unfettered existence, while a baited badger is an example of the abuse of power. 13

Such heightened perceptions of the most minute and fragile elements in an ecosystem give a poignancy to both writers’ recognitions of the fragility of entire bioregions.

Both writers are acutely aware of the changes in agricultural practices and their impact not only on the human economy, social life and communities but also on its spiritual life. Leopold and Clare both experienced the draining of marshes and fens. During Clare’s lifetime, this happened to the great fen at Wicken, in Cambridgeshire, which is now being restored as a fen, by the National Trust.14 Leopold wrote:

Some day my marsh, dyked and pumped, will lie forgotten under the wheat, just as today and yesterday will lie forgotten under the years. Before the last mud-minnow makes his last wiggle in the last pool, the terns will scream goodbye to Clandeboye, the swans will circle skyward in snowy dignity, and the cranes will blow their trumpets in farewell.15

In conclusion

“I turn homeward, still wondering” - ‘A Sand County Almanac’, Aldo Leopold. 16

In this Paper I’ve been looking at two writers who convey a sense of how we internally preserve, comprehend and transmit the places where we put down roots; who exemplify the process of finding/reading/expressing the ‘undersound’ of a given dwelling place. This is an essential and shared human capacity, evident every time we encounter experiences, through others, of dwelling in places different from our own.

In my own experience during a trip to America in July 2008 I found that at many of the venues, large and small, rural and urban, where I performed, the poems people read were often about where the poet lived. One poet read about her experience and memories of the Dustbowl years of the Depression; in New York a poet read of his pride in Brooklyn. It made me think how we’re all hybrids, carrying around many cultural roots and identities; an amalgam of languages and memories of place.

Dwelling, of course, can mean multiple things. We dwell in several places simultaneously – physically and geographically, in our memories, thinking back to our roots; our imaginations project us forwards into the future. All these aspects can come together to dwell in a poem and the poem itself can become a place we can inhabit.

The word conclusion isn’t really appropriate here, as the journey I am making is a continuous one. Each time we leave our own ‘homes’, when we return to them, we view them afresh; the familiar and unfamiliar merge to create new possibilities, fed into it by our experiences of other cultures, tongues, countries and people. This alchemical mix has the potential to solidify into prejudice – or to create tolerance and understanding of what it means to dwell on the earth as an ‘other’, whether that ‘other’ is human, non-human, or inanimate.


1     p. 106 Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
2   p.  236 Jonathan Bate, ‘Song of the Earth’ (Picador 2000)      
3   p.  113 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
4   p. 114  ibid.
5   p. 106 Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
6   p. 114 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
7   p. 101 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
8   p. 101 ibid.
9   p. 18 ibid.
10 p. 202 Seamus Heaney, ‘The Redress of Poetry’ (Faber and Faber 1996)
11 p. 25 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
12 p.19, ibid.
13 p. 116 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
15  p. 162 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
16 p. 5 ibid.


Jonathan Bate, ‘Song of the Earth’ (Picador 2000)
Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
Seamus Heaney, ‘The Redress of Poetry’ (Faber and Faber 1996)
J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)

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