Unquiet slumbers for a sleepy world
" I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
The final lines of one of the great imaginative novels of the 19th century bring together any number of ideas. The 'benign' sky points to a divine presence - if not quite God, then the formative being we have come to call 'Nature', to which Wordsworth attributed both his growth as a person and as a poet. The 'moths' ,'hare-bells', and 'soft wind' seem to respond to the speaker and the moment, quietly going about their business yet cognisant of the anguished past of the dead buried on the heath. The life of Nature exists both in parallel and creates a sort of communion. And it is tempting to see in this an Arcadian ideal - as if there was once a compact between Man and Nature which has since been broken.
Of course, there was nothing of the sort. National parks are relatively recent. Probably an invention of Wordsworth as Jonathan Bate has argued, they were necessary to protect relatively small areas of our kingdom from the depredations of industry. The Clean Air Act came into force only in 1956, after our central metropolis was devastated by a smog which probably led to the death of 15000 or so Londoners. Yes, there had been earlier bills, but none which tackled the effects of pollution largely caused by the rapid growth in industrialisation. If Nature had decided to cast a benign gaze over the custodians of that Yorkshire landscape, then it was not a gesture that was reciprocated by many of their descendants.
I write as Southern Water has been handed a fine of £90 million for deliberately 'dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into protected seas' (The Guardian, Friday 9th July). I don't live in the areas singled out for this special treatment, but I do know from the data from the Environment Agency that my own local sea water quality declined from 'Good' to 'Sufficient' between 2016 and 2019. I warn friends not to swim after heavy rainfall when the sewers and drains, many neglected for decades, overflow and cannot cope with the excess water. You can guess the rest. Let's put it this way - you'd have a shit swim in more ways than one.
Writers respond to the natural environment because it stirs the imagination, because it calms the soul, because its life-affirming qualities are written deep within our histories. The countryside which was once a place considered ugly and rough (see Susan Owens book 'Spirit of Place' for more on this) slowly came to be recognised for its 'picturesque' qualities, for the sublime effect it had on our emotions. Wordsworth knew its worth and power and it's an idea which has stuck. During Covid, visitors to our great national parks grew exponentially, seeking solace from suffering. Even before Covid, modern writers continued to explore the effect of place on the mind and body. In Imtiaz Dharker's poem 'Campsie Fells' an extended family from Pakistan run free in a popular beauty spot 20 miles north of Glasgow, a haven from the city. It's not difficult to imagine the girls in their fluttering dresses enjoying the same benign breezes as the narrator who stood on the side of the hill in Haworth.
Yet what we have done and continue to do to that communion spirit of place threatens the sleep of the living and the dead. Nowhere is safe. This week, floods in London, Germany and Belgium of an intensity rarely seen at this time of year uproot pavements and buildings, turn streets to rivers and lives to rubble. On the west coast of the USA wild-fires are endemic, while floods on a scale hitherto never seen batter Australia, after one of the longest droughts on record.
I ask whether I could write an innocent nature poem now? Blake's poem The Sick Rose comes to mind - the invisible worm finding out the 'secret life' of the rose and destroying it. As I lie on our beach contemplating a swim, what do I see? Or what can't I see? However clear the water looks, the only image is myself looking back - Nature bouncing questions my way. Where once the waves washed benignly, now there is a disinterested, staring gaze to them. The sea is a blank, almost unreadable. Worms thrash under the surface, but we can't perceive them.
How high will the waves have to rise? How fiercely will the flames have to burn? How powerfully will the winds have to batter the heath under which we sleep before we wake?