Saturday, 10 March 2007

The song of the land

The countryside has a tremendous wealth to offer. Being in the countryside, immersing yourself in the nature around you, is spiritually uplifting and emotionally restorative. You only have to look at our rich literary heritage to witness the strength of emotional response that authors and poets display in those works that draw on the countryside and the wildlife it supports. You don’t even have to understand how it all fits together; you can just plug yourself in and appreciate its existence. These thoughts struck me the other day, not while I was out in the countryside but while I was watching a new short film by Norfolk filmmaker John Snape. The film portrays our countryside through music, poetry and writing, picking out some of the most poignant and engaging prose as it does so. From Meredith’s description of a hunting barn owl “..lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping…” through to Francis Harvey’s heron that “… settles wrapped and murderous… the hermit who daily petrifies himself in the reeds…”  the poems draw out memories by adding carefully observed description to scenes that I too have witnessed over the years.

Part of the film focuses on the life and poetry of John Clare. Clare, born in 1793 to virtually illiterate parents, enjoyed brief success as a poet in his lifetime but it is only more recently that his true greatness has been acknowledged. Working as a farm labourer, Clare was no mere observer of the natural world around him. Instead he was immersed within it and his intimate knowledge of birds, plants and animals sets him apart from other writers. The influence of being within and part of the countryside can be seen in Clare’s poetry. His early works are a joyful celebration of nature, with his subjects stirring strong responses in this peasant poet. Yet his later works take on the increasing sense of loss that Clare felt as he witnessed the countryside disintegrate with enclosure and agricultural improvement. Such loss weighed heavy on this sensitive man and he ended his days in an asylum. It seems to me that the binding interaction between the countryside and those that seek to immerse themselves within it is a double-edged sword. Moments of sheer joy, like the pleasure derived from listening to a nightingale, are balanced by the heartache of seeing the countryside despoiled as we place greater demands upon it. However, such is the vitality of nature that there will always be some small thing with which you can engage to generate an uplifting emotional response. John Snape’s film provides many such moments and is well worth a viewing (Telephone John on 01263-768599 for more details – proceeds to Norfolk Wildlife Trust).

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