3. Shadows and Light

Geoffrey Heptonstall

‘Shadows are confused by sunlight,’ is the conclusion of The Conference of the Birds, Jean-Claude Carrière’s adaptation of the ancient Sufi poem.

Without sunlight, there can be no shadows. Wherever we walk we often find ourselves in the shadows. In a forest or in a city, there is at least as much shade as there is sun. We seek the shade, yet we need the heat and light of the sun. We begin to relate to the natural world by acknowledging our dependence on nature. As living beings we are part of nature. Human life evolved from simple organisms into creatures who can create worlds within the world. And we have the capability, if not the wish, to destroy the world.

One way of approach is to seek to direct nature, as if it were a wild creature that we might command. In the Age of Reason gardens were laid out in formal patterns that divided the scene equally between identical halves. Order was imposed. Civilisation had conquered nature as surely as reason had cleared the human mind of superstition.

What was dismissed by Voltaire and other rationalists as superstition was rediscovered by Coleridge as imagination. Reason alone is as bloodless as dry bones. The body needs its skeleton to house the flesh and blood, the heart and mind. Imagination is neither ordered nor balanced. Organic growth is nurtured by fecund soil and the freedom to develop an instinctive autonomy. In the Romantic era that followed the Age of Reason the aim was to live with nature rather than to control it.

The landscape designs of the Romantics, notably ‘Capability’ Brown, sought a harmonious ideal that was natural, but not wild. The Chinese notion of Feng Shui codifies this from common sense intuitions about the arrangement of things. If furniture in a room is arranged well it feels harmonious. So also do the component elements of a park. The trees are planted not at random, but with a vision of how they may relate to the land where they grow, and to the water whose surface reflects them in all seasons.

The experience of seasons is more acute in the country than in the town. Agriculture works with the seasons. Industrial life may see seasonal change as marginal and incidental. The weather changes but life goes on. In workshop and office there may be little or no change in work practices.

The charge against the mechanised society was it that acted against nature. The lament for the loss of a simpler, natural way of living has a long history. Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village appeared as early as 1770. The sense of loss for the poet outweighed any possible gains. Villagers were leaving for the city. They were abandoning a life based on the natural rhythms of the seasons. It was a life where organic growth was essential both in agriculture and the rural society. Life was more communal.

A long tradition of the pastoral ideal developed in reaction to the industrial city. White’s Natural History of Selborne, a monumental bestseller for many generations, reflected this ideal of rural life. At harvest time everyone rolled up their sleeves. Work in the fresh air was healthy. And there were fruits on the hedgerows and firewood in the forests. There is some truth in this, but generally it belies the reality of rural poverty. Yearnings for folk traditions and an organic community are derived from a debased romanticism. They are an urban dweller’s fantasy of living with nature without forsaking urbane convenience and comfort.

Of more validity was the Arts and Crafts movement that emerged later in the Nineteenth Century. Especially associated with William Morris, it was not an expression of nostalgia for a vanished idyll but a radical critique of a stratified society based on the dehumanising realities of industrial society. Labourers toiled to exhaustion in dark mines and factories. Their minds were dulled and their spirits crushed. Men, women and children were treated as machines. Their lives were lived in the shadows of society.

The Arts and Crafts movement sought to restore the centrality of craftsmanship in working life. In place of endless, mindless toil there was to be the dignity of a life-enhancing relationship between workers and their materials. Manufactures were not only to be useful, they were to be well designed, and to be made with care. The value of crafts that built medieval cathedrals were needed to rebuild a modern society.

In Hugh MacDiarmid’s words:

That human life, no longer hideously awry,

May spring up at last in its proper form.

(A Clyack Sheaf)

The contrasts and tensions between town and country have yet to be resolved. The garden city movement is the best known of experiments in living an urban life with a rural feel. The use of local materials and traditional designs was one means of seeking a credible harmony between nature and human constructs.

In the Seventies the Ruralist school of artists, led by Peter Blake, signalled a change of mood from Sixties Pop Art which reflected the Twentieth Century’s reliance on technology. Pop Art was energetic, colourful and young in its celebration of the trivial. Art of significance was created from ephemera. A move to the country developed the energy and colour into a quest for age-old truths in folklore and mystery. The natural world is not green: it is every colour there is. Ruralism articulated an aesthesis of subtle and varied responses.

This contrasted sharply with the art of urban shock, which continues to capture media attention with its simplicity of style and recourse to calculated gestures of outrage. Pop Art sought (and found) depth in everyday objects. Vitality in art emerges from roots with many tendrils. The colours, shapes and sounds of nature are reflected in the human need to reach a creative understanding of our place in the world. We have much to learn.

We have much to learn from our fellow creatures. Observing other animals may help human beings to reach our ‘proper form’ at last, as the poet said. Acknowledging the good sense and wisdom of animals is not a recent exploration. It is age-old, if not universally acknowledged. Animals are not soulless machines. Nor are they brainless objects whose purpose is to provide human beings with faithful companionship, servitude, entertainment or food. At least as early as Plutarch’s On the Cleverness of Animals the intellect of animals has been known. It was known by observation and by a sympathy that remains less common than is desirable for our own wellbeing and that of the planet. ‘There are many things to admire in the spider’s web.’

According to Genesis we have dominion over the animals. But that can work only as a partnership. Plutarch observed the ability of animals to have purpose and planning. The partnership between humans and animals is not always of equals. We treat animals as servants, or as slaves, although we are often at their mercy. Even our cities are not ours alone. Think of the rats. The myriad alleys of Elizabethan London were the haunt of wild dogs. Beyond the city were many dangers. There are, of course, legends of ghostly hounds. Out of the shadows comes the spectre.  

However civilized we may feel, however much we claim the command of technology, ever advancing, we are still creatures with primitive instincts that may conflict with our higher reason. The further we advance from an engagement with nature the more artificial, the less spontaneous and creative, our lives become. Technology can be a means to a common culture of communication, but only as secondary support. The conversation in essence remains within human agency.

The written word and the painted image mediate life with sensitive creativity. Paper and canvas are crafted organically. They feel closer to nature. And yet no communication can compare with the immediacy of the human voice, and the tangible presence that is flesh and blood and mind and spirit.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven's Invention, a novel (Black Wolf 2017) and three poetry collections published by Cyberwit: The Rites of Paradise (2020), Sappho’s Moon (2021) and The Wicken Bird (2022). A new collection will appear soon.

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