Friday, 29 June 2012

Tales of a Crow Historian

While one person sees a shopping mall, another person may see the open fields on which it was built - or even a mythic landscape. 
Take the case of the Crow Tribe living at Billings, Montana. I recently discovered a poignant article by journalist Lorna Thackeray in the Billings Gazette (09-02-2012), interviewing the Crow historian Elias Goes Ahead. He tells us about important places in the history of his people, places now swallowed up by 140 years of colonisation and built development.
Plenty Coups, the last of the great Crow chiefs, lived his final years south of Billings in Pryor... "Ten years later, his father, Medicine Bird, was killed by Piegan Indians," he continued. "This took place down South Billings Boulevard at the end of the bridge, just to the right.". These spots are unmarked, as are most of the places named in his stories, but they linger in Crow memory.  
[Extract from Billings Gazette]

Among the Crow heroes was Chief Four Dances. "Four Dances went fasting," Goes Ahead said. "He had four fasting sites." One was near Airport Road and another was west of the airport. One was in the current Four Dances Recreation Area and the fourth was near Highway 87 as it goes into Emerald Hills, he said. At Four Dances, he was adopted by the great-horned owl ...
Near Airport Road. Image courtesy Google Maps
These stories open up a new perspective on the landscape of the city and its suburban hinterland. They invite us to look through the westernised life-world, with its roads, houses, shopping malls and factories, into that of an elder people. The politics are poignant.
Before Billings was the Magic City or the Sugar City or Montana's Trailhead, it was Crow Country...
Taking for a moment the Crow perspective, what words might we use to describe the present urbanised landscape? 


Winter tales: Crow historian retells stories of area's past - (accessed June 2012)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Hrēod Græf

I was in Redgrave yesterday evening, at a meeting hosted by the Culture of the Countryside project of the SCVA. We discussed ideas for creative collaboration with the Little Ouse Headwaters Projectwicker eel trap stood on the table, along with a terracotta statuette of a Mexican rain god and the prow of a Polynesian canoe. 
Including both wooded uplands and valley fen, Redgrave was called Redegrafe in the Middle Ages, from the Old English Hrēod Græf, 'Reed Ditch'. So it probably started life as a settlement down near the Fen, perhaps on on the sandy soils round Moneypot Hill. The main area would have developed later around the Green,  perhaps in the 12th century, a mile away on the clayland plateau. Redgrave has strands of continuity with the Mediaeval world, with relics that include its Green, Church and Park (which once belonged to the Liberty of St Edmund), its Lord of the Manor, and the pattern of its roads and lanes. It also has its people, many of whom may be more local than they know, and of course its plants and animals - the parish is their homeland too.

Hodskinson © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012
Extract from Hodskinson's map, 1783,
showing Redgrave Green and the Fen
How can we creatively engage with the local distinctiveness of the Little Ouse headwaters area? The river starts life as a ditch in Burgate or Rickinghall, depending on which way you are looking. It swells with groundwater seeping out of the Chalk bedrock and boulder clay. Its valley is the westerly part of a former glacial meltwater channel fifty miles long joining the Fenland basin to the Waveney. Seen from the air, it is a rank green corridor of grazing meadow and marsh, carr woodland, fen and even patches of heathland. Its resources down the centuries have been a province of the poor: it has supplied them with timber, peat and firewood; hazel and furze; wicker, reed and sedge; meat, fish and nuts; even pools for retting hemp. Like Hrēod Græf, local parish names evoke the ancient life of the valley: 
  • Blo' Norton - Blaenorton – ['North farmstead where woad grows']
  • Hinderclay - Hyldreclea – ['River fork where elder grows']
  • Thelnetham - Thelfetham – ['Village frequented by swans']

Marsh ochre © Tim Holt-Wilson 2012

After the meeting, as dusk was falling, Justin [Partyka] and I set out towards the Fen down the footpath of Mill Lane. We met Neville Culley out walking his dog. He has lived all his life in the village, and was brought up at Sandyhurst cottage near the Fen; his father Eric was the Redgrave Estate carpenter. We talked about people and places. Later, Justin and I continued towards Sandyhurst. The footpath skirts the wood, where Eric said the nightingales once used to sing so loud they kept you awake. We passed the lighted windows of the lone cottage where his widow Daphne lives. Neville clearly makes himself useful about the place: the grass in the lane is kept as immaculately as ever; its clippings are tipped in a huge navel-pile against the hedge, towering up beside a neatly trimmed ivy bush. Sandyhurst is an empire of order in the chaos of June.

Mill Lane finishes at the Fen. Dark trees give way to a gloomy expanse. A large hawk suddenly darted towards us, veered up and turned away - perhaps a Goshawk (Cully?). A crescent moon appeared between shifts of  cloud, eyeing us also from the surface of pools. In autumn, this part of the Fen is swept with 50,000 wings, as flocks of starlings twist and turn in dark acrobatic masses before settling to roost. The brooding stillness and otherness of this valley landscape challenges us to find messages that people will want to hear. It is liminal and borderline; its messages are unhuman. Would our tribal ancestors have seen it any differently?

Picking our way back up to Redgrave, the cottage windows were now in darkness.

© Justin Partyka 2012
Photo courtesy Justin Partyka

Sunday, 17 June 2012


"Everything we think we know about the world is a model".

          - Donella H. Meadows: 'Thinking in Systems: A Primer' (Routledge; 2009)

Friday, 15 June 2012


I am seated outside my front door in the sunlight, reading.
"Our most immediate experience of things... is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter - of tension, communication and commingling". (1)
I glance up suddenly, aware of being observed. A grey squirrel is draped along the ridge of the roof, warming itself in the sun, watching me. I give a low whistle; its head is quizzically raised for a moment.

Awareness is aware of me.

"Only by affirming the animateness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world" (ibid). 
David Abram suggests we must decentre our perception from seeing things in subject-object terms, and recentre them in the primordial connection we have with the life-world, and our symbiosis with it.
But what about the subject-object dichotomy? Isn't it central to perceiving and knowing things factually? Where would Science and the Enlightenment project be, since Galileo and Bacon, without objectivity?

Abram and the phenomenologists recognise that by trying to represent the world we inevitably forfeit its direct presence.
"It was Husserl's genius to realise that the assumption of objectivity had led to an almost total eclipse of the life-world in the modern era, to a nearly complete forgetting of this living dimension... In their striving to attain a finished blueprint for the world, the sciences had become frightfully estranged from our direct human experience." (2).
However the objective way of seeing the world, and the achievements of science, are rooted in subjectivity.
"The striving for objectivity is understood, phenomenologically, as a striving to achieve greater consensus among a plurality of subjects... The pure 'objective reality' commonly assumed by modern science, far from being the concrete basis underlying all experience was, according to Husserl, a theoretical construction, an unwarranted idealisation of intersubjective experience". (3)
Science is thus an intersubjective project, the product of competition and consensus-building between scientists as subjectivities. This is a radical position, which gathers both subjective and objective modes of experiencing reality into its orbit.

For Mythic Geography, writing about the meaning of 'place' inevitably brings into play our wealth of subjective and intersubjective experience, ranging from personal memories and perceptions through folklore to scientific information. This is the myth in the 'Mythic': the fiction we create to explain our place in the world - and no less real for being fiction.


(1) David Abram: 'The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World' (Vintage; 1997; ISBN 0679776397; p56). 
(2) Ibid, p41.
(3) Ibid, p38.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The lives of others

A squirrel is busy retrieving acorns - a small hole in the grass, the husk of the acorn lying beside it = the evidence. New potholes appear on the lawn every few days. She presumably locates her buried treasure by smell: I have often seen her sniffing about the grass, and she often has mud on paws and nose. I don't think I can attribute great feats of memory to her however - grey squirrels cannot match the astounding Clark's Nutcracker in North America, which may recover 70% of its cached nuts from a territory of over 100 square miles (see article). Every year I have several oak seedlings sprouting from the lawn, which have presumably grown from the acorns that have escaped her or her fellows.

I am reminded how important smell is in the non-human world. The beetle which flies heavily past me in the garden is unlikely to be pursuing a random path. The ants which forage among the grass stems are following scented tracks laid by their fellows; the closer they come to their native ant-heap, the stronger and more reassuring must be the smell of home. The voles have their runs in the undergrowth. The moorhens are patrolling their part of the garden, reinforcing an invisible territorial boundary between their domain and that of the moorhens on the back pond.  The rabbits have taken to sitting on top of the ant-hill on the lawn, and crapping there, making a pile of hraka, as Richard Adams might have put it.

My garden has places and spaces with meaning of which I know nothing. It is filled with tracks, trails, signs and boundaries; if I could read them all I would be astounded - and completely overwhelmed with the quantity and complexity of the information. I just filter out what is important to me - and the other inhabitants do the same.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Nigeria rediscovered

My admiration of this awe-inspiring work of nature…
Dexterously crafted by an enigmatic potter.
A mysterious piece of art He did make,
Latched away in a mountainous jungle,
The lush jungles of Idanre - the City of Inselbergs.(1)

View of Idanre, courtesy of F Kolawole
The eye of a true writer is not content with visiting the surface of a place: it penetrates the layers of meaning (personal, collective and objective) which create 'place' in our perception.

Such is the eye of Folarin Kolawole, a geographer and Nigerian tour guide, whose travelogue at Naijatreks is an extraordinary investigation of places in Nigeria through words and images. The layers of meaning present in his work include the wealth of Yoruba folk culture and religion, local geology and geomorphology, plant and animal life, archaeology and history. His articles resonate on many levels, a product of what he calls a "passionate romance with nature’s endowments", including human life in its environmental context.

Kolawole's writing is vigorous, enthusiastic and pleasurable, nevertheless capable of weaving complex patterns of meaning. He truly brings places alive - see for yourself: 
Owa Cave, courtesy of F Kolawole

(1) (from 'Owá Cave- The House of a Thousand Bats' by Folarin Kolawole)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Geodiversity in Suffolk

Where would we be without the land? Geodiversity is the various aspects of the physical landscape, its geology, soils, landforms and water. I think it is impossible truly to understand a place without understanding something of its physical features; life is interwoven with them. Reading the geodiversity of a place is an essential part of what Judith Stark calls 'landscape literacy'.

High Suffolk: a clayland landscape near Creeting Bottoms

Imagine standing on the open clayland plateau of High Suffolk, perhaps at Rattlesden or Worlingworth: the eye travels across a gently undulating plain. Big arable fields contrast with smaller, more intimate vistas as we approach woods, farms and villages. The highest areas are more or less flat, but outwards we encounter shallow valleys, often little more than dips in the land surface. The landscape is like a calm sea freighted with human life and wildlife; church towers stand out for miles; the land shimmers with heat in summer, and is chill and windswept in winter.
But the patterns that we see are as much determined by physical as biological or cultural realities. A key factor linking villages as far apart as Hopton or Clopton is the glacial boulder clay, a legacy of the Anglian glaciation some 450,000 years ago which laid down a thick layer of till (glacial debris) over the land. This geology determines the way crops grow here; its flint, clay and brickearth have been used for building everything from humble cottages to fine churches; the impermeable clay soils necessitate constant drainage and ditching work. The evidence of this glacial story is staring at us out of the plough-soil or from the banks of a local clay-pit; it is written into the shape of the very plateau.

Upper Weybread © Tim Holt-Wilson 2011
A Suffolk boulder clay landscape at Upper Weybread

Reading the geodiversity of a place. We start with geological maps, soil maps and specialist publications, we gain a sense of the way that the rocks, sediments and soils are disposed. Out in the field, we notice landforms and topographical variations, rock outcrops and the stones in the topsoil, and the way that water is moving, above and below ground. Gradually we build up a picture of a place in the context of deep time: its Earth history comes alive, as inscribed in its physical environment. Then we can weave plant, animal and human life into the picture, confident that we have understood an important aspect of the ground we are standing on. It is as much a philosophical as a physical ground.

Weybread beet © Tim Holt-Wilson 2011

To find out more about geodiversity in Suffolk you can read my article 'Geodiversity, Suffolk: an Introductory Excursion'. This was published in 'A Celebration of Suffolk Geology. GeoSuffolk 10th Anniversary Volume' (edited by Roger Dixon; published by GeoSuffolk, Ipswich; 2012; ISBN 0-9508154-7-0).

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Suffolk Expedition

I spent yesterday in the delightful company of Justin Partyka and two American guests Judith Stark and Donez Xiques. We explored the pre-Enclosures landscape of Mellis, Burgate and other parts of the old Redgrave Estate. The ghosts of Roger Deakin and the spirit of Oliver Rackham were rarely far away, both people who knew the area. The rain was also our companion.

A hornbeam stool in Burgate Wood,
last coppiced perhaps 60 years ago.
This part of Suffolk is thick with commons and greens, ancient lanes and woods, the elements of the pre-Enclosure landscape which have somehow survived in this part of the county. Two centuries ago, the Enclosures impacted on the old landscape by dismembering commons and open field systems, for example the now-vanished Allwood Green and North Field at Rickinghall. Meanwhile, the villages of Mellis and Burgate remain clustered round their greens and linked by trackways; Burgate still has its Mediaeval wood, complete with original bank and ditch, 'giant coppiced stools' and the earthworks of a lost moated manor; Mellis still has its mile-long Green. The diversity of the plant life in this landscape is a measure of how long such traditional features have existed - the Dog's Mercury along the lanes, Herb Paris and Oxslip in the woods, for example.

Away from the woods, greens and lanes, however, the usual clayland agri-prairie holds sway, except where old-fashioned mixed farming is practiced. A shift in the rural economy in the 1970s destroyed far too many ancient features. Pointless agricultural greed became the order of the day, fuelled by EEC subsidies. In Mellis, Cowpasture Lane was removed south of the railway; Stonebridge Lane was removed between the Green and Whitmore's Wood. In Hinderclay, some 60 acres of the Wood was removed. Over half of Redgrave Park was converted into arable. Within a few years, many parts of my childhood's landscape became unrecogniseable. Local inhabitants were disgusted and inflamed; some, like Roger, took up arms in defence of the vernacular landscape; they battled at planning meetings and founded local protest groups, as at Botesdale. They found (in the short term) that  they were powerless to do anything but rage in the face of the destruction. Roger's experiences here led him to become a founder of Common Ground. Writers such as Marion Shoard challenged the regime of rural land ownership ('The Theft of the Countryside'; 1980).

Stonebridge Lane 1904  (Ordnance Survey, 6" : 1 mile)
An ancient drove way between Burgate Little Green to the north, and Mellis Green.
An enigmatic avenue of trees leads south from Furze Way, and merits a landscape archaeological investigation.
Stonebridge Lane 2011 (courtesy of Google Maps)
Stonebridge Lane has been removed south-east of Whitmore's Wood, as have many hedges and ponds.
All traces of the avenue have also gone, though it remains a public footpath.

As these photographs show, the loss of local landscape detail between 1904 and 2011 is not just a loss of ecological richness; it is also a loss of historical richness and meaning.

How many people know what has been lost? How many appreciate what survives? A visitor may travel through the landscape of High Suffolk and complain that it is flat and boring. We need to tell them the truth: the beauty is in the detail.