By Bernie Bell
In his recent book, ‘Underland, Robert MacFarlane quotes Anselm Kiefer – “I think there is no innocent landscape, that doesn’t exist…………….” This quote is in the section of the book entitled ‘Hollowlands’, and refers to the idea that all landscape has been touched by man, some in harmful, even horrific ways, and poses the question, can these landscapes ever be ‘innocent’ again?
When I read that quotation, I thought, surely there are innocent landscapes, and if anyone would know of them, it would be Mr.Mac – thinking of all the places he’s been and that he knows of. I then tried to think of places, myself – then I thought – hang on a minute – they’re all innocent – it’s us, that aren’t innocent. The most war-torn or industrialized landscape, is still what it is – is still itself, it has its innocence.
Years ago, Mike and I were driving somewhere in or near Birmingham ( can’t remember which) and it was all roads – we were on a road, and all around us were roads, and they were all black with dirt. Not a sign of life, anywhere, not even the usual dandelions or buddleia bushes. I said to Mike “What a terrible thing to do to a piece of land” but – the land was still there, underneath the mess – the mess, was what we’ve done to it.
I honestly think, that all land and landscape is innocent. It hasn’t done anything – it’s us, that do things to it or on it. The bad feeling in some places, comes from us – either through how we view the place and therefore interpret and project our view onto it, or from what has happened there, caused by us, and what we did, not the place itself. I firmly believe this to be so, and, as I write this, I am more convinced of it. All landscape and land is innocent, even the most polluted – it’s us, who aren’t. Even the land at Chernobyl, is growing things again.
Whatever we do to it, it will either recover or be different. Either way it maintains its own self. Seeing it as losing its innocence, because of what we’ve done to it, is seeing it too much from a human view. We have a tendency to be arrogant in that way – everything relates to us, well, I don’t think it does. We might inflict stuff on what’s around us, or even be good to what’s around us, but it is what it is – it’s essential being, isn’t dependant on us or what we do. It doesn’t all relate to us or come back to us or what we do to it or how we see it. I do think that.
They can’t keep it down, they can’t beat it. It’s what is – it’s land. One of the things we’re losing sight of and touch with is – just how much land – simply, IS.
In my view …..landscape and land, have their innocence intact – what we do, doesn’t destroy that – we may mess it up, for a while, but it’s still there – the innocence.
The changes are caused by us.
And, to illustrate this, I’m going to tell you a story. In the old-fashioned way, I’ll put an initial, and a dotted line for the name of one of the people involved, as I’m not sure how she’d feel about being named, and as I mention, I have now lost touch with her…………..
Before moving to Orkney, we used to live in Suffolk, near Lowestoft. Along the road from us, lived our friend Pat, and I’d see Pat most days, when taking Ben-The-Dog for his walk.
One day, Pat called me in and showed me a photograph which puzzled her. Pat owned a number of properties in Lowestoft. Her husband had been a successful businessman – he sold pine furniture, and, at that time, you couldn’t go wrong, selling pine furniture. He died, leaving Pat with an income from the rent from these properties, which included a building at the top of town, in the old part of Lowestoft. This building was divided into flats, and in one of these flats lived H—, with her little girl. H— had taken a photo of her little girl, sleeping, but, when she got it developed ( this was pre-digital), there were also three figures in the photo, standing, watching the sleeping child. There were two women, and what looked like a very angry male figure – face contorted – almost a gargoyle. Very angry.
Pat told me that this had shaken H— up, especially as some odd things had been happening in the flat. Things moved, doors opened and closed, things like that. H—had tried to stop those things, by getting some kind of amulet from someone, with things written on it. People do thrash about when they encounter Spirit, and do these things, sometimes.
H— heard a crash, and found this amulet, smashed, on the bathroom floor. And now, this photo.
Being aware of my weirdy-lady-ness, Pat showed it to me, and asked what did I make of it. At first glance, the angry figure, made me catch my breath. I handed the photo back to Pat, as I didn’t want to take him into my house with me, especially as Mike was away and I was alone. When I got home – this is what came to me…..the angry figure, is the Spirit of Place, not a person, never has been a human person. He’s the Spirit of Place, a Being – always has been. And he is angry, very angry at what has happened to his place.
It had been under the sea, it had been a fresh, breezy cliff-top. It is now very much built over, and, in fact, one of the more grotty parts of town – dilapidated buildings, a bit ‘lost’, as a place. He was furious. We talked it over – I was putting forward the idea that it would change again – he has all the time in the world. It might get tidied up, it might go back to being a natural cliff-top, or end up back under the sea. He has all the time in the world, but, meanwhile, he is angry about how it is, as it’s the worst it’s ever been. All the ways it was before, were natural. A first, even with buildings, it was pleasant and acceptable to him, but now – he was angry.
We did talk it through, and he accepted some of what I was proposing.
I told Pat all this, and asked her to ask H— to acknowledge him, and his place, in some way, now and then. Just to think about him, picture/remember it as it was – just give it all some thought.
Though angry at what has happened to his place, and what people have done to his place, he wasn’t angry with H—, and hadn’t meant to frighten her. He liked to see her, and her little girl, there. He had smashed the amulet, because he was angry that, as he saw it, she had implied bad intent on his part, and used a silly amulet to try to get rid of him – him, who had always been there – it was his place!!! He was angry about that, but still hadn’t meant to frighten her. He was a very angry Being, which is why I hadn’t wanted to take the photo home with me.
You may be wondering about the other two figures in the photo. I had no idea about the two women in the picture, so I asked Pat to ask H— would it be ok for my friend Caroleena to go round to the flat, to see what’s what. Caroleena is very much a weirdy-lady, and part of what she does, is what she calls rescue work. She goes to places which are said to be ‘haunted’, and sees how she can help.
Caroleena went along to H—’s, and ……..The lady in the photo had been a well-to-do merchants wife, in the 1700’s, living in that house when it was a smart town-house. She had a happy life there, and hadn’t moved on, when she passed from this life, because she had been so happy there, and didn’t want to leave. The other woman was her ladies-maid. They got along very well, in life and still did so. They were watching the child, asleep, with great joy in the sight. That could be seen on their faces, which were soft, almost glowing. Caroleena felt that they would move on before long. Though they had been very happy there, time does move on, even in the world of Spirit. Caroleena felt that they would move on, quite soon.
They were completely un-aware of the Being, who Mike and I had taken to referring to as Our Friend In The High Street, as he contacted me a few times, liking to carry on our discussion, and – calming down a bit! So, from someone who’s image I didn’t even want in the house with me, he became – Our Friend In The High Street.
H— said the flat calmed down, too – bits of gentle ’activity’ now and then – more a case of just ‘saying hello‘ than anything disturbing. She was fine with that, as she now knew who it was, and even felt a bit re-assured, knowing he was there, keeping an eye.
An interesting thing is – not long after that, a rejuvenation scheme started in that part of town. There’s an old building, also from the 1700’s, round the corner from the building which now contains H—’s flat. This had belonged to an Admiral, who had fought the Dutch. Though a building of some historic interest, it had been left to go to rack and ruin – most of the roof, and floors, had fallen in – a mess.
Funding came from somewhere, and this building was completely renovated, back to how it had been, and it looked very well indeed – a handsome structure.
I don’t know what it was then used for.
Also, a particularly ugly, dilapidated old warehouse building in the same area, burnt to the ground – a great big fire – fire cleanses – all gone.
There were plans to re-build on the plot – something new and smart.
These developments weren’t taking the area back to how the Spirit of Place wanted it to be, ultimately, but I think the improvements helped him to not be so angry about it all.
I don’t know what you’ll make of this – I’m just telling you what happened. Mike can vouch for it, and Caroleena. I would say Pat could vouch for it, but she now has extreme Alzheimer’s. I’ve lost touch with H—, as this all took place going on for 20 years ago.
So – a tale of a piece of land, or a piece of the planet, as it wasn’t always ‘on land’ as such, and the changes that happened to it, and how the Spirit of Place felt about that, and, even, how a human could help a Being to see a situation a bit differently, and see that it could/probably will, be clear ‘land’ again – though that might mean it being under-water again.
You might be thinking that such a Being would be all-knowing and far-seeing and all that, but, not necessarily. ‘He’ is, who/what he is, he has his strengths and his forms of knowledge, as each kind of being does, but that isn’t necessarily all-encompassing.
And – put yourself in his shoes, considering what we’d done to his place. Not surprising he was angry, and anger can blind reason, even in Beings.
Caroleena enjoyed meeting the two ladies – she said there was a general air of contentment about them.
Why was I made aware of who the angry Being was, but not the ladies? And Caroleena vice-versa? I don’t know, that’s just how it is, sometimes. They contact who they choose to contact.
I’ve never actually typed this up before, so, thanks to Mr. Mac and ‘Underland’ for prompting me to do so. And for getting me thinking about the lands innocence – and its indifference.