Of time and landscape

Styhead_Tarn_by Ella_Johnston_1

Time is the prism through which we see landscape. We can, of course, try to fix landscape in our minds by writing it, photographing it or painting it, but it embodies uncertainties that will always undo our efforts. It’s unwieldy, it dislikes neatness, it unravels. Consider a photograph and this becomes clear:

In a photograph is a small boy, cagoule zipped up and hood drawn tight around his face, and out from which some strands of wet hair can be seen sticking to his forehead. Behind him rises a mountain-mass of fell, a monolith enraptured in tombstone grey sky.

The location for the photo is the black water of Styhead tarn – frozen in an instant as a cold winter hollow, smuggled beneath the Lake District’s high ground. And this is the way I always view Styhead tarn, which I’ve rambled up to occasionally over the years, in all seasons, and in weather good and bad. Forget the tiny jewels of flowers that bloom here in spring and summer – the avens and catchfly, mousear and cinquefoil – or the sweet musk hit of bilberries found between the valley-side heathers and ferns of Lingmell. No, this is my picture, and its colours are almost monochrome.

But this isn’t the real landscape of Styhead tarn, either – it’s a version. And the boy in the picture isn’t really me, because I’m here, now. And the boy is peering out from the murk of fast-descending cloud at a man absent from the photo, a man holding a camera and focusing the lens for an inordinately long time, a man who is my dad, who is no longer here. And so when I look at the picture, I’m him, my dad, looking at his son, a child I haven’t had.

An aperture closes. The stratus of cloud shutters us out.

From the look of me, the year of the photo is 1983; but from the quality of the image I guess it’s 85, taken with my dad’s then-new camera. In truth I can’t place it accurately at all.

And where is this photo now? It’s somewhere, of course, maybe in an album in a cupboard in an old sandstone house where sparrows nest, gaining entry to the masonry in cracks where mortar has fallen out over the years. And maybe it’s still remnant on the drive of a computer, scanned in the early days of the digital age. But the dusty and creaking laptops were jettisoned during one of our house moves; and all the old images were lost to become the binary ghosts of a purgatory of landfill.

The photo is gone but the landscape of Styhead still lives, even if I haven’t seen it in two decades. The last time I was there, we paused for a flask of tea and a sandwich – one of those mediocre kind that are elevated in flavour by any corresponding rise in altitude from the valley floor. We headed on round the water, rising for Sprinkling Tarn before dipping into Ruddy Gill and the crags of Great End that signal the way to Sca Fell itself.

As we walked, the bright morning was lost. A small cloud, light as August thistledown, floated towards us; then another – and then we were suddenly gone from each other’s sight, voices ringing clear in the formless afternoon, consumed, wet and blind in the cloud. By the summit we were drenched. Ten years later, two of our small party of friends were gone for good, taken before their time.

It’s hard to consider landscape without considering changes in perspective – the view from there compared with the view up here, or the view back then compared with the view now, today. There’s a tendency in some modern landscape writing – and there’s an awful lot of that around – to want to fix landscape, own it, cement it. Writers venture out and return to report facts, listing all the varieties of flora and fauna seen like they’d been on an A-level geography trip. This misses the point.

Landscape can’t be squared in a quadrat; it’s nothing if it’s not about change, about what is gained and lost, not only in its physical features but also in our appreciation of it, in our imaginations. To gain things, or to lose them, takes time. Landscape is about time too. Its elemental aspects are little more than illusion. We can’t get our precise bearings if we only consider landscape as a meeting of fell and sky, slate and birch, or maram grass and pebbles smoothed in littoral space. These rough pictorial coordinates will only get you lost. The natural world disappears from view, and so does the story of our place in it. It’s only by tracing landscape through time and mind that it truly becomes real.

MW Bewick

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Time and landscape are the lines of narrative that run through all of our books – so far – here at Dunlin Press. In our latest book, Priced Out, it takes the form of the life of an artist, Tinsel Edwards, and her personal and creative journey through the city of London, which first offers hope and opportunity, and eventually brings us to the cataclysmic and divisive housing situation that has seen artists leave the capital in droves, along with vital key workers and others, and ultimately delivered the tragedy that is Grenfell.

In Scarecrow, MW Bewick‘s debut collection of poetry, the lines of time and landscape connect London with rural East Anglia – and with the recurring figure of the Scarecrow, watching as seasons turn and lives come and go. He is there in the capital, with “fingers compassed acutely at the palaces and flags”, and as ‘Jesus of Kingsway’, throwing out bread that will feed the homeless during the cold night, and in the fields where he will watch “harvests for old lovers, chances passing”.

In The Migrant Waders – illustrated by Ella Johnston and with contributions from the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology, the Refugee Council, and poets and nature writers – the geographical scope broadens to take in the Arctic and Africa. The book traces the flight paths, and discovers the destinations, of the migrant birds that grace our shores and moorlands, as well as the journeys made by humans – across continents and through history – in search of food and shelter, or to escape conflict, and to find somewhere that might be called home.

In Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, contributors including filmmaker and novelist Chris Petit, ‘Hookland’ author David Southwell, poets Wendy Mulford and Martin Newell, and a host of other writers, who together create a kaleidoscopic vision of an East Anglia that connects The Wash to The Thames, and folklore with food banks, via the region’s salt marshes and creeks, sand and shingle beaches, psychogeographies and human history.

Landscape and time. It’s how we see the world. And how we create it afresh.

Styhead_Tarn_by Ella_Johnston_2Illustrations: Ella Johnston

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