Ahead of her new online course, Die Like a Wolf: Writing the Non-Human, Suzannah Evans discusses the non-human in her poem ‘Naming the Hill’, published for the first time here.
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
Robinson Jeffers ‘The Answer’
A few years ago, I attended a symposium at Leeds University entitled ‘Considering Place in Practice-Based Research’. For several years places, maps and their stories had been central to my writing and so I felt quite at home with the ideas I was amongst.
The speakers were a mixture of visual artists and poets and one talk in particular caused me to stop and think differently. The speaker was Harriet Tarlo, a poet and editor who had been a lecturer of mine at Sheffield Hallam. The title of her talk was ‘Open Field: Reading field as place and poetics’ and I expect I’m going to paraphrase it in quite a botched way here, because I lost my notes some time ago. She talked about how important it was for her to try and move her poetry about landscape away from a human identity; that in order for it to be true ecopoetics it needed to take the landscape as itself, rather than a function of human experience or a taxonomic list of the plants and birds we’ve named. As John Shoptaw says in his excellent essay on the Poetry Foundation website: ‘Human interests cannot be the be-all and end-all of an ecopoem.’
At the time I had been working on a poem that took absolutely none of this into account, titled Trevor on the Long Mynd. The Long Mynd is a hill in Shropshire. Trevor is my father’s first name, although he doesn’t use it, so it’s sort of a disguise. The poem is very much about the place from a human perspective, about the ability my father has of pointing from the top of pretty much any hill in the West Midlands / Welsh Marches and being able to name every other hill he can see. The poem is perhaps about naming things, about the fact that I now relish this same knowledge and find this to be a way of understanding my place in the world.
After the talk I went back to the poem and decided the best thing to do was to try and write the same poem with an awareness of the distance between my own identity and that of the hill. I still used fairly conventional sentence structures. I listed names for the hill and all its parts. I read the hill’s history and felt thoroughly dwarfed by how long it had existed for, and how long into the future it would go on existing. I thought about very human things that the hill couldn’t do. I thought about the daft similes I might make and I avoided them on purpose. The sequence that came out of this exercise, Naming the Hill, is a weird shapeshifting poem. Actually, it’s also largely about the act of naming the landscape, but with an awareness that names are not as significant to the hill itself as they are to us.
Using language to express something that is beyond / without / outside of language is a tricky process that leads to more questions than answers. I gave up quite early on the possibility of managing this, but I think the poem still works as an examination of this idea, and an exploration of the difficulty of expressing the ‘truth’ of a place. It strikes me that if the place had its own language, it would be silence and weather and gradient, all of which are hard to express with words.
These ideas resonate with some of the ideas I’ve since come across through my interest in the Dark Mountain Project, a cultural movement that accepts that the collapse of civilisation is inevitable and hopes to prepare for it. This is from their Manifesto, ‘Uncivilisation’:
The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won.
So the question remains; how do we write nature from the inside, as a part of it, rather than merely something that serves us with its beauty, its metaphors and resources? What are the right questions to ask of it, and how do we take the reader away from a natural world that serves humanity and into one that is not distinct from it? In this course I hope to open up these questions, even if we can’t rely on finding answers. I also want to look at other non-human viewpoints: removing the anthropomorphism from our interactions with animals, the way a machine might express itself, and perhaps a look at transhumanism and the way human bodies might be enhanced and made different in the future, and the influence this might have on our consciousness and words.
Trevor on the Long Mynd
Trevor on the Long Mynd unfolds the map
of his mind across the Marches. He knows,
without the toposcope’s brass dial,
the names of all the hills:
the Malverns, grey-purple to the south,
the Wrekin with its stenchful public toilet,
Clent where the conurbation starts
and the nights are more copper than black.
the pencil line of every walk you’ve been on
is laid into the ground.
It’s black over Bill’s mother’s
he says to the approaching clouds.
You’ll never be Trevor, but months later
on the bus out of town, you notice yourself
pointing out the leaning block of Higger Tor,
the red flat of Millstone Edge, Surprise View
which is no longer a surprise, but still
you gasp like a tourist as the land uncurls.
You’ve been here in snow,
standing thigh-deep on the broken road
and now the heather is out and the moor
is glamourous with bees. You’re learning
how to use the memory he gave you,
the words to chart each path and plantation.
Naming the Hill
In the National Trust tea-room there’s a display:
Pre-Cambrian geology, a pitted rock
from a time when the rock was mud, and the pits
were the imprints of rain. Transformed together,
they are stone and small emptinesses.
Long Synalds, Pole Bank, Calf Ridge
Cow Ridge, Black Knoll, Packetstone Hill
Barristers Batch, Catbatch Brook, Callow Hollow
Plush Hill, Ramsbatch, Sleekstone
Gogbatch, Hens Batch, Devils Mouth Hollow
Grindle Hollow, Priors Holt, Shooters Knoll
Carding Mill, Long Mynd, Mynydd Hir.
The heather has been chewed and burned
but springs back black out of the dry earth.
One summer evening you stopped here,
there are photos, you and your sister
falling back onto the bed of heath, letting it catch you,
the dog licking your fallen face in alarm
the August evening colouring the hillsides.
Rising in your car on the Port Way
to eat your car-picnic above the gliding club
you watch the tiny planes, the no-noise of their no-engines
in the pale early-year sky, never flying, only airborne
falling back in quiet circles to the land.
The hill does not measure months;
did not declare its highest point.
It cannot eavesdrop on heartfelt conversations
about your ambitions for the future.
It can’t tell you stories of the ice age
or the jurassic era. It can’t see the view that you can.
It cannot feel the sheep eating the grass,
which is not, in any way, its hair.
The ravens call to each other in their hundred voices.
Parents call their kids back to the car.
One hit the other with a snowball and he’s crying.
The sheep say very little as they muzzle
in the yellow winter grass. The man on Pole Bank
could tell you the names of all the hills.
The hill doesn’t know what a name is
has never seen a map of itself.
Suzannah Evans’ new online course is Die Like a Wolf: Writing the Non-Human. Find out more here.