Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Small Moons Glowing - Deer in Mythology and Poetry

Originally published Janaury 2014, on Ryburn Ramblings.

Anyone who has seen wild deer will recognize the rustling shuffle, the momentary partings of overgrowth, the startled eyes as a surprised animal stops short, regarding its human observer with something of the child’s startled curiosity. These wordless meetings are like momentary trysts.




The Cervidae family, which we know as deer, evolved from muntjac-like animals originating in Europe around thirty million years ago. They are pictured in heraldry, having appeared on flags and Heads of Arms for centuries, and play a major role in literary symbolism. Deer are not uncommon sights where I live, and benefit from the combination of open grassland and forest. You will see them darting through the trees at Rough Hey, or grazing fruit-rich hedges around former quarry lands at Brighouse. One sighting sticks in my mind more than any. On a sunny afternoon in June, 2012, glimpsed from the towpath where the Rochdale Canal threads its way into the Calder and Hebble Navigation, the Sika doe almost seemed to float along the slope, its head dipping in and out of sight as it wove through low-hung branches It was an understated meeting. But for a number of reasons it was highly significant.

In The White Doe of Rylstone, Wordsworth relates how:

The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, reappearing, she no less
Sheds on the flowers that round her blow
A more than sunny liveliness


and casts the gentle, unassuming creature as a kind of emblem of peace, bringing comfort to the mind of a girl whose soldier brother is killed and buried near the family’s ancestral home: the doe acts as faithful companion, visiting the brother’s grave even of her own volition. Wordsworth’s poem - felt by the poet to be “in conception the highest work” that he produced - frames the deer in a spiritual imagery recalling its traditional mythology: throughout history, the symbolism of deer has denoted kindness, loyalty, compassion.


 Greek mythology features the Cerynian Hind, associated with the Goddess Artemis, and whose temporary capture is set down by the monarch Eurystheus as one of the Labours of Hercules, punishments imposed on him for the crime of having slain his own children while suffering from madness.
Nordic sagas depict four stags consuming foliage, said to reflect environmental and climactic symbolism. In 1886, English banker-scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 - 1870) translated the long poem Grímnismál (Sayings of Grímni), a mediaeval rendition of folkloric myth, recounting:

Harts there are also four,
which from its summits,
arch-necked, gnaw.
Dâin and Dvalin,Duneyr and Durathrô


Fifty years on, American scholar Lee M. Hollander (1880 - 1972) produced the section as follows:

Four harts also
the highest shoots
ay gnaw from beneath:
Dáin and Dvalin,
Duneyr and Dýrathró


In a rare example of the deer as antagonist, Norse mythologists portrayed a hart permanently biting into the flesh of Yggdrasil - the World Tree whose roots sustain the Nine Worlds - to add to the suffering the tree endures from sundry other natural sources in its efforts to maintain the existence of the world(s).

In the Talmud, the giant stag Keresh inhabits Bel Ilai, a magical forest, apparently without influence on the outside world, and in Oriental spirituality deer are messengers to the gods, while in South American cultures deer are taken as representational rather than playing active roles in legends. In Celtic mythology, fairy cattle were nocturnally milked by giantesses who could transform themselves into deer; the animal is also a popular choice of transformation for those escaping persecution. The Christian legend of Saint Hubert conveys upon the deer restorative, revolutionary powers. Drawing together historical elements of varying accuracy, the tale - first attributed to Hubert in the 15th Century having been adapted from similar stories since around the 8th Century - describes the life of a son of the Duke of Aquitane who, in common with his 7th Century contemporaries, habitually hunted deer. However, whena deer he is pursuing turns to face him, revealing a crucifix between its antlers, Hubert then hears a voice, which warns him: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell," whereupon the erstwhile hunstman resolves to abandon his former ways and lead a peaceful life of charity and preaching.

Eight years before The White Doe of Rylstone, the 1800 volume of Lyrical Ballads opened with the poem Hart-Leap Well, which takes its name from an actual spring at Richmond, Yorkshire, and in which Wordsworth presents a more celestial vision of a deer, albeit one burdened with the misery of “a remarkable Chase” as, shifting between past and present tense, the poet describes a solitary knight pursuing it up a hill ("at least nine roods of sheer ascent"):

The poor Hart toils along the mountain-side;

I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died;
But now the Knight beholds him lying dead.

Remarkably, though, the deer has transfixed his assailant who witnesses an extraordinary scene, as the deer appears to descend the hill in just three leaps:

Sir Walter wiped his face, and cried, "Till now
Such sight was never seen by human eyes:
Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.


The creature’s life, of course, could not be saved by its miraculous abilities, for the poet has already made clear how:

Upon his side the Hart was lying stretched:
His nostril touched a spring beneath a hill,
And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched
The waters of the spring were trembling still.


Walter resolves upon witnessing this feat to commit himself to a goodlier life, or at least - in a blatant nod to Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn - "to build a Pleasure-house upon this spot."

In the poem’s second part, the hart’s death scene has ceased to be a place of joy and, the Knight long since deceased, has dwindled into grimness and decrepitude. We encounter a classic Wordsworthian technique, as the interpretation of nature is left not to a sage or scholar, but a humble shepherd, whose anthropomorphic reflections on the hart are harrowingly poignant:

What thoughts must through the creature's brain have past!
Even from the topmost stone, upon the steep,
Are but three bounds—and look, Sir, at this last—
O Master! it has been a cruel leap.

"For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;
And in my simple mind we cannot tell
What cause the Hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.

"Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by the fountain in the summer tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wandered from his mother's side.

It is thus the image of suffering, rather than fantastical redemption, that is most powerfully asserted as we near the poem’s conclusion. As if in consolation, we are reassured that

This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine

As the unnamed narrator insists

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.



    American poet Jane Hirshfield shines a light on the subtle miracle of the deer, casting it as an almost transubstantiative enigma:

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.


Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.


(The Supple Deer)

And in Standing Deer, she paints the creature in a more transient light, seeming to suggest the elusive, fleeting nature of happiness and human certainty:

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.


From the days of Saint Francis to the age of Heraldry, through their favourable depiction as messengers of magic in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or as the loveable Bambi in Felix Salten’s children’s stories, later screened as Disney cartoons, to their position in modern literature as woodland heroes and heroines, as in Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, in which The Great White Stag protects the animals of the promised land of White Deer Park, deer have enjoyed respectful, affectionate, even reverential treatment. In a poem brilliantly capturing the awful realisation of death, Jon Loomis describes in chilling detail the step-by-step horrors of car and deer collision:

You're seventeen and tunnel-vision drunk,
swerving your father's Fairlane wagon home at 3:00 a.m.

Two-lane road, all curves
and dips—dark woods, a stream, a patchy acre

of teazle and grass. You don't see the deer
till they turn their heads—road full of eyeballs,

small moons glowing. You crank the wheel,
stamp both feet on the brake, skid and jolt


into the ditch. Glitter and crunch of broken glass
in your lap, deer hair drifting like dust. Your chin

and shirt are soaked—one eye half-obscured
by the cocked bridge of your nose. The car

still running, its lights angled up at the trees.
You get out. The deer lies on its side.

A doe, spinning itself around
in a frantic circle, front legs scrambling,

back legs paralyzed, dead. Making a sound—
again and again this terrible bleat.

(Deer Hit)




Aside from unintended deaths, deer have been stalked and killed in Britain since the Middle Ages, and in Wordsworth’s time the “sports” were rife. In As You Like It, Shakespeare decried the cruelty of the hunt:

A poor sequester’d stag
That from the hunter's aim hath ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish. . . . .
. . . . And the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase


Against this backdrop of disregard for the suffering of their kind, England’s deer are at threat. On the 14th November, 1843, in her beautifully written Stanzas, Emily Bronte expressed sympathy with the timid deer whose limbs are fleet with fear, while in her 1914 poem Two Kinds Of Sport, American writer Calla L Harcourt, describing a pair of hunters, reports:

They blotted out lives that were happy and good,
Blinded eyes and broke wings that delighted to soar,

They killed for mere pleasure, and crippled and tore
Regardless of aught but the hunger for blood.

Did they dream that night as they sank to their rest
How poor little Broken-Leg out in the field

All nurseless and doctorless, fever possessed,
Felt all of the torture that battlegrounds yield?


This is contrasted with the exploits of a photographer who carried a Kodak instead of a gun. Unlike the victims of the hunters, The deer that he "shot" never dreamed of his aim and Yet rich were his "trophies" and varied his "game."
Calla L. Harcourt’s photographer was clearly cut from the same cloth as contemporary Scottish poet Kenneth C Steven, author of the wonderful short poem The Deer:

Come December they click at nightfall,
When the hills are ghostly with snow,
Flint-hoofed into a town led by moonlight.

They are whittled from wood;
Sinews of strength sewn together,
Their hearing honed to catch the slightest falls in the forest,
Or know the click of a gun.

Their mouths soften the grass of gardens
Before dogs nose them, bound out barking, big-voiced,
Send them no louder than a scattering of leaves
Back into the huge night.





Sticky Pearls - Earthworms in Ecology and Poetry

Originally published August 2013, on Ryburn Ramblings.
STICKY PEARLS - WHY EARTHWORMS ARE IMPORTANT

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.”Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, 1881.



Synonymous with death, worms gradually devour the bodies of the dead, provide an ironic twist to the food chain, thrive on carrion.  Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs, Shakespeare’s Richard the 2nd grimly urges in the midst of war. Hamlet, musing on mortality, observes how humankind might fatten and consume other creatures only to end as the food of worms.  Your worm, he tells us, is the only emperor in diet.

For William Blake, the worm  represents corruption, something dissolute and nullifying.  In The Sick Rose, though his worm is metaphorical - no earthworm would fly, by night or any other time! - he nonetheless selects this species to destroy the rose with his dark secret love.

Sylvia Plath at least pours some balm on the depiction of worms, comparing them to sticky pearls, yet this description comes in the context of death: the worms have gathered on the body of the briefly expired Lazarus, imagined in female form.  Worms appear again, in The Fearful, where this time they are more ambiguously referenced:

This man makes a pseudonym
And crawls behind it like a worm…

The mask increases, eats the worm…

worms in the glottal stops.

In the poem, death is mentioned three times.

Earthworms have wound their way into my own poetry. In my debut collection Little Creatures: Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I tried to shed light on the wonders of the worm, yet, motivated by Blake, have inevitably veered towards its darker nature:


CONSIDERING THE EARTHWORM

To rake the muck,
sift silt, and crawl mud-miles,
slurping sods awash with phosphate,
like rubbery trowels, creeping
through a jungle of bacteria,
these are the virtues of the worm.

Needling through nitrogen,
soft-bodying through clods,
he’ll twist himself, contortionist,
squeezing through earth's pores,
swivelling and corkscrewing
under moorland, mire,
heathland blotted by burnt cars,
broken dry-stone walls and ling fire,
ferreting through mole tunnels
and warrens, penetrating underground
beneath a battery of rain.

Amazingly, this boneless wire can regenerate,
a resurrected miracle
as twin lives germinate.
This is the wonder of the worm
his brute adaptability, and love
of all things life-giving,
his quest to poke himself into the open
at the brilliant incision of jawbones -
badger’s staple, blackbird’s catch.

NIGHTCRAWLER

Disturbed in earth
a parody of exile
braving
hard necrotic
frosts and re-submerging
ostrich-like, at the sheer
invasive skim of metal.

In a dark oblivious
universe of loneliness,
worms mine alkaline
and acid, burrowing
to the soil's blood.

That rust-flesh vein
of plated circularity
stabbing
structured interface
conceals a long digestive tube,
trawls mineral miles
scenting dark decrepitude
and feasting

on the crimson joys
of bursting birth,
consuming death:
teeth pinned on roots,
like embryonic babies
whose intestines slowly grow
and coil themselves
into life.


Throughout literature and mythology, worms have served, engagingly, as reminders of the morbid and macabre.  Vikings pictured them coiled around the Universe, biding their time before strangling the world; many Norse legends filtered into the folklore of areas that fell to Viking plunder, so that in the North East, for instance, “The Worm’s Den” is a secret hollow inhabited by The Linton Worm, a serpent who nocturnally emerges to gobble crops and livestock.  Innumerable similar legends abound.  More recently, in the Star Wars trilogy, the carnivorous Sarlacc is a worm-like monster embedded in the sand below the palace of Jabba the Hutt, and one of many horrific Hollywood creatures inspired by the idea of slithering, mysterious below-ground worms.In reality, worms are neither monstrous or dangerous.  Indeed, it is hard to see how the earthworm, an umbrella bracket for an internationally profuse distribution of species of which six occur in Britain, could be seen to do anything but good.







Breathing through their skin, worms live principally below ground, in the soil (the layer of earth they naturally occupy is known as “the drilosphere,”) and as they move through it in search of food and in their daily lives, they help to aerate and break it up, easing access for roots, aiding drainage and nutrient access for the roots of plants.  They also consume soil and organic matter in large quantities, excreting soluble, pH balanced nutrient-rich "casts" rich taken up by plant roots, and play a vital part in the ecosystem as prey for other beneficial animals such as birds.  They can number up to around 3 million per hectare in productive pasture, and live for around ten years.  Worms interact symbiotically with bacteria, soil fungi and other organisms which form associations with plants, benefiting worms, which in turn benefit us all.  Yet these facts, which seem self-evident to gardeners today, were largely unknown until just over a century ago.



A young Charles Darwin took pains to observe earthworms in their natural environment, before his excursions into the radical world of Evolutionary Biology …only to return to his youthful fascination a few years after On The Origin of Species.  This time, he performed experiments, and recorded the results.  Convinced that their turning of the soil and periodic appearances above ground must serve some beneficial purpose(s), he deposited chalk and coal stones in a field, returning to them twenty years later to assess the depths to which they had sunk, thanks to the actions of the earthworms.  At Stonehenge, he noted sunken monoliths absorbed into the Earth via the impact of earthworm castings.  Darwin received help from relatives, letters of advice from as far-a-field as India, and even soil samples from the sites of Roman ruins.  

It will be difficult to deny the probability, Darwin wrote, that every particle of earth forming the bed from which . . . old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms. His research exploded the myth that worms were essentially pests, and the resulting book actually sold more copies in the author’s life time than the famous  Species - with a thousand copies purchased in its first few weeks of publication.  It was to be the author’s last.  Having, at the apex of his incredible career, finally returned to his childhood curiosity, and in doing so once more altering the attitudes and perspectives of his peers, Darwin died the following year at the age of seventy-three.


Thanks to Darwin, the earthworm’s virtuoso role in the natural landscape and environment is well known and respected.  Far from being an unwelcome guest, the worm is integral to the health of our planet.  It is a great provider of aeration and soil management, and in its own peculiar, surreptitious way, a very interesting animal, like a wriggling mole, a subterranean smuggler dispensing innumerable nutrients, and in its humble, understated manner, cementing the mechanics of the soil into a  functioning, congenial whole.  Without worms our eco-system would be fatally imperiled.  Or, as Darwin put it, Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.



Worm photograph: Ann Brundinge


Diluting the Darkness - Poetry of Alice Taylor



















The brief, sensitive verses of Irish poet Alice Taylor's collection The Journey (The O'Brien Press 2010) offer indirect but empathic responses to loss, framed in glances at the natural world. Discovering them three months after my father's death, I have found many of the poems to make subtly therapeutic reading, while others pull no punches in their commentaries on grief.

Uprooted

From my inner grove
A deep-rooted tree
Has been dragged up
A gaping chasm
Remains.
Where I once stood
Beneath sheltering branches,
A weeping hole
Pours black tears
From my morning
Down through my day.

Comprising poems written and published over several decades, The Journey is thus a sort of Selected Poems, but they seem to have been sequenced in such a way as to sketch an honest representation of the poet's losses, being both stark and subtle, dark and quietly restorative, but ever sentimental:


Shawls of Silence

Let me creep down
A brown burrow,
Down into the
Quiet womb of earth.
Deep down there
Is only silence.
Down, down,
Where velvet darkness
Clothes the ragged mind
In a shawl of gentle stillness.

Born in County Cork, Alice Taylor grew up on a farm, and much of her work is underscored by observations of agricultural life, the ways of the countryside, and the workings of nature, which are somehow reflective without seeming passive - indeed, one really gets the sense of a poet of whom that over-used accolade, "at one with nature," is entirely just:


Extraction time,
The pregnant combs
Release their ripened treasure,
Golden liquid pouring
into sparkling jars 

(From Storing Summer)

There is something Heaney-esque in the lines above, outlining the mechanics of physical activity, while in poems like Morning Cobwebs a reverence for the mysterious charms of the wider environment is distilled:

Early morning
Pools of silver,
Each tree a halo
Of webbed stars
Holding hands
Of shimmering chains
Shrouded in veils
Of silver mist
Reflecting the nature
Of the night.

Alice Taylor's poems often seem to take place at night or early morning, those times of day when we are most alone, or free from the constraints of everyday responsibilities, when the mind might wander, on the margins of time.  The onset of a day brings shimmering reflections on the wonders of the wild world; the night in these poems is strangely comforting, a time for solitudeIt can also be a time when hidden hurts emerge, as in the acutely visual Dark Crevices:

Night weaves
A grey cobweb
That nets
The morning mind.
Overnight
Old pain creeps out
Of dark crevices.

This time around, however, the poet does not seek to further "burrow" into the seclusion of the dark.  The "quiet womb" which offered security in Shawls of Silence is not escaped to at the conclusion of this surprisingly cathartic, story-like poem:


In the morning
I must crawl
Out from under
A black blanket,
Let the light
Into my mind
And the sun 
Dilute the darkness.

In its understated way, the poem reminds me of Ecclesiastes. It is not a detailed story of recovery or the process of healing. It offers no practical solutions or suggestions.  It does not venture to suggest any sort of permanence. It is simply a straightforward, but beautiful, account of gentle resilience, with a grain of hope.



Alice Taylor's poems are unpretentious, simple without being simplistic, minimal without feeling cold, and softly charged with a powerful current of understanding, empathy, and compassion.