Thursday, December 18, 2003

Mythic Place 

Fred and Beth recently pointed me in the direction of the Ecotone wiki; writing about place. There's a bi-weekly topic, currently Mythic Place, so I thought I'd give it a go. Here's what resulted...

A child’s-eye-view of the world tends to build by a process of accretion. New knowledge materialises in isolated chunks and is added into the picture where it seems to fit best, or sits on its own, uncertain of a place in the whole. Islands of knowledge form and grow as new pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are added; sometimes the islands join to create a new panorama of knowledge; sometimes also the ever-creative mind of a child fills in the gaps as best it can to create a self-consistent world-view.

I grew up in the outer suburbs of London; my view of the world centred on our own little corner of England. I knew our street, I knew the neighbouring streets where my friends lived and the park reached by a short-cut over our back fence. As I grew older I got to know the neighbouring suburbs as well. But knowledge of any real places much further afield had to be pieced together from fragments of largely second- or third-hand information – pictures in books, glimpses on black-and-white TV, descriptions in stories. I read a lot as a child and developed a particular fondness for two series of books whose stories took place against a backdrop of rural England. Thankfully they had few pictures, only a small number of line drawings, so visualising the landscape in which they were set was almost entirely down to my imagination.

So it was that, without only the sketchiest first-hand knowledge, I built myself a child’s-eye-view of the English countryside. A mythical landscape; an archetype; an ideal; a mosaic assembled from all of those idealised portraits reflecting the countryside as those authors wished it to be. My mythical countryside was an adventurous schoolboy’s dream – freely accessible woods to explore, trees to climb (with perfectly-spaced branches), fields to laze in; streams to wade through (just shallow enough not to come over the top of Wellington boots), traffic-free county lanes to stroll down, grassy hills to race up and roll down, all linked together by winding sandy tracks and pathways (no heavy, cloying mud here) with delights around every corner. Hedgerows with perfectly red berries; haystacks of soft, dry hay; a grass snake slithering into the undergrowth; a heron silhouetted motionless before a pond at evening.

Seasons in this land of make-believe were, of course, perfect. Snow came early in winter – before Christmas, naturally, and just the right consistency for perfectly-rounded snowballs - and stayed clinging to rooftops and trees until the spring, magically disappearing overnight without ever turning to dirty wet slush. Summer days were long, hot, carefree.

Occasionally now I’ll come across a scene that’s like a tile fallen out of my mythic mosaic and materialised in a hidden corner of the real world. A combination of light and colour, feature and form, creates a vista that triggers a recognition of that imagined land.

More often though, reality disappoints. Farmyards, for example, are paved in concrete, permanently awash with mud, littered with old chemical fertiliser bags. Farming is rarely a profitable business, and it shows – everything looks old, used, a little shabby, often with makeshift repairs. Farm outbuildings constructed in the cheapest, most functional materials – concrete blocks, corrugated sheeting. The peace of the countryside disturbed by the incessant drone of a diesel generator. Access blocked by rusting barbed wire.

My mythical countryside remains a dream, and always will. But perhaps the only thing really separating dream and reality are the cumulative and ever-present effects of our apparent need to dominate the landscape. It’s still just possible to see past the artificiality and decay that modern living imposes on the land, and to appreciate the natural beauty that inspired the myth.

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