Robert Macfarlane on The South Country

Little Toller celebrates its tenth birthday this year, so we’re delving into our archives to pick out pieces of writing that have been pivotal on our journey. Edward Thomas’ The South Country was one of the first books we published back in 2009, and it was to Robert Macfarlane that we turned to ask if he would introduce the book to a new generation of readers – he had recently started a series of walks that he later wove into the masterful and bestselling The Old Ways. We were fortunate, not just because Robert himself was thinking of paths and forgotten footsteps (and in particular those trodden by Edward Thomas), but because the words he returned came with  a generosity of spirit that has been with us ever since, encouraging, supporting and influencing who we are today. Do look out for more fragments from our books over the course of 2019 (#TollerTen).

 

 

Edward Thomas was a compulsive walker. ‘His greatest pleasure, and certainly his greatest need, was to walk and be alone’, remembered his widow, Helen. Sometimes he carried a map with him, wanting to tramp for a day ‘without touching a road but to cross it’. More often, he preferred to go mapless, and to follow the leads of the landscape – to ‘trace a stream up to its source in the wood’, or to be ‘guided by the hills or the sun’. He made a series of one-day walks in the design of ‘a rough circle’, ‘trusting, by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right, to take much beauty by surprise and to return at last to my starting-point’. Decades before Guy Debord and his Situationists devised the idea of the dérive or ‘randomly motivated walk’ (1956); decades before Richard Long inscribed ‘A Line Made By Walking’ in a Wiltshire meadow, and aligned walking with sculpture (1967); decades before Paul Auster’s enigmatic character Peter Stillman trod the letters of the alphabet onto the Manhattan street-plan (1984), Thomas was out there, making tracks, pursuing the living and the dead, and pioneering the walk as art-act, as artefact.

 

Walking was, for Thomas, re-creation rather than recreation. Depression dogged him throughout his short life, and like many melancholics he developed his own rituals of relief – the most powerful of which was walking. His tours on foot – through the Welsh marches, along ancient trackways, and over the English downlands – were attempts to out-march the causes of his sadness. He found, he wrote, ‘deepest ease and joy out of doors’, and of all landscapes, it was ‘the South Country’ that most deeply eased Thomas. He took the phrase from Hilaire Belloc’s chalky poem of the same name, and used it to designate the countryside ‘south of the Thames and Severn and east of Exmoor’, including ‘the counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, and part of Somerset.’ To Thomas this area was not a political or social entity, but a bio-region: constituted of chalk downs, clear-watered streams, beech hangars, and wild-flower meadows. East and west across ‘the south country’, he wrote, ‘go ranges of chalk hills, their sides smoothly hollowed by Nature . . . or sharply scored by old roads . . . their ridges mak[ing] flowing but infinitely variable clear lines against the sky’.

 

He lived in this area for fifteen years, and he walked it for more than twenty, wandering ‘far afield alone, retreading forgotten footpaths and hidden lanes’. It was his landscape of closest acquaintance, and it consoled him in the ways that religion or music consoled others. ‘Solitary on the bare downs’, recalled Helen Thomas, ‘or in the sheltered valleys, on the ancient tracks above which the kestrel has always circled . . . there he could throw off his brooding and be content.’ Shades, here, of Albert Camus’s half-contemptuous, half-envious remark that ‘some of my contemporaries are cured of their sadness merely by contemplation of a landscape’.

 

The South Country was written rapidly in the summer of 1908 and published in 1909, as part of a pastoral series that included Belloc’s The Historic Thames, and The Heart of England, also by Thomas. It bears, here and there, evidence of the speed of its production: purple patches, hack-marks, daubs of sentimentalism. Thomas himself disowned The South Country within a year of completing it, finding it ‘full of nasty jingling rhythms’, of ‘endless description’, and with ‘an insufficient thread running through and no connecting links’. It had been done, he admitted with a grin and a grimace in a letter to a friend, by ‘dipping into fifteen closely written note-books for solid details to support my soarings and fluttering’.

 

But Thomas is too hard on himself. At its best, The South Country is a sustained prose-poem, strange and visionary in its disconnections, and brilliant in its noticings. Those ‘brisk acid wrens’ that he hears in a Sussex hedgerow, for instance, or the ‘liquid confiding monotone’ of the nearby sparrows. The downs that rise ‘like old thatched houses’. ‘The confused moonlit chequer’ of a wood’s floor at night. His animistic vision of how rain brings the downlands to life: ‘the voices of the green growing in the rain are innumerable. The very ground has now one voice of its own, the gurgle of its soaking hollow places’ (he loved thick weather of all kinds, loved the abolition of co-ordinates, edges and familiarity that rain, fog and snow bring about).

 

Thomas regretted the lack of ‘connecting links’ to the book. But it’s this lack of connection – the absence of a continuous journey, or an ever-present walker-narrator – that distinguishes The South Country from other Edwardian nature-travelogues. The book jumps about: geographically, seasonally, meteorologically. One moment you’re in Suffolk, then you’re in Hampshire. One chapter it’s summer, the next it’s autumn. One sentence it’s raining, the next it’s blazing. There’s something hypermodern about the book’s collage-like feel, its shifts and bucks. In topographical terms, the experience of reading The South Country resembles a Google-Earth fly-over of the chalk counties: zooming in here, settling there, lifting off, scrolling on . . . In tonal terms, the book slides without warning from the intensely observed to the extravagantly imagined. The effect on the reader is an intriguing cognitive dissonance, brought about by this irregular movement between the empirical and the mystical.

 

Thomas is too hard on himself, as well, because there is a ‘thread running through’ his book, and that thread is the idea of the old road. The 1984 Everyman reissue of The South Country carried on its cover Paul Nash’s extraordinary oil painting ‘Wood on the Downs’ (1929). In the foreground is a hangar of beeches, the trees high-trunked and elephant-grey, with their leaves styled into ellipses. In the background, white chalk paths ribbon away over the downs, their forks and curves rhyming with the beech branches. The painting fuses European avant-garde technique with English pastoral content: Nash’s signature combination. The image of the path fascinated Nash, and ‘Wood on the Downs’ recalls his earlier war-work, including ‘The Mule Track’ (1918), in which a duck-boarded path draws the viewer’s eye dangerously onwards into a trench-scape of shell-blasts and sucking mud. Echoes, too, of the desolate ‘Ruined Country, Vimy’ (also 1918) in which a white path runs hopefully through war-ravaged country, while high above it swoops a combat biplane.

 

Nash was the great twentieth-century artist of the path; Thomas its great twentieth-century writer. Again and again, Thomas’s prose travels by the old ways: along ‘a disused path amid almost overlapping dog’s mercury’, by ‘a frail path chiefly through oak and hazel’. ‘The long white roads and virgin beeches are a temptation. What quests they propose!’, cries Thomas midway through the book. ‘They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.’ He had absorbed the English nineteenth-century romance of the open road – there in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel, so beautifully set by Vaughan-Williams, and in George Borrow’s Romany fantasias – and added to it his near-morbid fascination with the marks of the long dead. The old ways were, for Thomas, sites of communion with what Stevenson once called ‘the long-vanished races’. To step out along them was to fall spiritually into alignment with the ghosts of previous pedestrians. Footfall as séance. Road as rift in time. ‘For centuries these roads seemed to hundreds so necessary’, he wrote:

and men set out upon them at dawn with hope and followed after joy and were fain of their whiteness at evening: tread softly because your way is over men’s dreams; but not too long; and now descend to the west as fast as feet can carry you, and follow your own dream, and that also shall in course of time lie under men’s feet; for there is no going so sweet as upon the old dreams of men.

Perhaps the best way to think of The South Country, in fact, is as a dream-map – by which I mean an act of imaginative cartography, a chart of longing and loss projected onto actual terrain. Thomas knew, I think, that this was what he had written. ‘In a sense this country is all carved out of the carver’s brain, and has not a name’, he observes early in the book. ‘This is not the South Country which measures about two hundred miles from east to west and fifty from north to south. In some ways it is incomparably larger than any country that was ever mapped, since upon nothing less than the infinite can the spirit disport itself.’

 

A year after the declaration of the First World War, Thomas joined The Artists’ Rifles – a large volunteer battalion for the London and Middlesex areas – and was posted first to Hare Hall Training Camp in Essex, where he worked as a map-reading instructor, using the skills of land-knowledge he had learnt as a walker. In January 1917, he was assigned to the Western Front. He wrote to Helen on 29 January, a day before leaving England, to say that once he was ‘over there’, he would ‘say no more goodbyes’. The move to France, remembered Helen, was a move:

farther south, but not to his south; the compass is not the index of the heart; and, when standing at the entrance of his dugout, he looked north and saw, or dreamed he saw, Sussex, with her gentle downs scattered with sheep-like grey boulders, and thorn trees bent and wracked by the wind, and the sheltering folds where the wind never came; and Kent, the Weald of Kent, whose clay oaks and hops and apples love, whose copses the nightingale seeks; Hampshire, with her hangars of beech and yew, merry tree, and white beam, and the cottage at the foot of the hill . . . these dear places he was never to visit again; never again was he to cross the sea; never again, mounting the smooth-sided down, to take in deep breaths of thyme-scented air, nor to seek the far horizon which bounded his south country, and know the peace which only that could bring him.

In the trenches, Thomas was able to pore over the dream-map – the memory-map – of the South Country that he carried in his skull. It’s clear from his journals and poems that the recollection of his years of freedom on the downs were a consolation to him during the ten weeks or so that he survived the Western Front.

 

On 8 April 1917, Thomas made a number of jottings in his war-diary. Some were circumstantial: a shell landing two yards from him as he stood by the forward-command post; a piece of shrapnel dust scratching his neck from another shell-burst. Others were metaphysical, proto-poetry: ‘The light of the new moon and every star / And no more singing for the bird . . . / I never understood quite what was meant by God’. Then comes a cryptic and troubling prose note: ‘The morning chill and clear hurts my skin while it delights my mind. Neuville in early morning with its flat straight crest with trees and houses – the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don’t know why I could have cried and didn’t’.

 

Loose inside the diary was a slip of paper with a series of scrawled addresses, and a handful of images. The last of these reads: ‘Roads shining like river uphill after rain’. What was Thomas recording here, one wonders. The old ways of the south country, with their glossy chalk? Or the support roads that wound down to the Front, with their gleaming mud? Both, probably, folded together.

 

Those roads again – drawing Thomas’s mind out and up and away. And that rain again – bestowing its blessing and its glisten even on the shattered landscape of Arras. ‘The end should come in heavy and lasting rain,’ Thomas wrote in The South Country. In fact, it came in heavy and unseasonal snow, which fell through the night of 8 April, and on into dawn of 9 April – the first day of The Battle of Arras. Through the falling snowflakes fell tens of thousands of German shells, one of which killed Thomas while he was standing at his observation post, just a few minutes after dawn.

 

 

Robert Macfarlane
Cambridge, 2009

 

ROBERT MACFARLANE is an award-winning writer of place, nature and landscape, whose many books include The Lost Words, Holloway, The Old Ways, Landmarks, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. His new book, Underland, is to be published this spring.

The South Country by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was originally published in 1909. The Little Toller edition has a jacket by David Inshaw and illustrations by Eric Fitch Daglish (1894-1966).

1 Comment

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Abigail Watsonreply
March 21, 2019 at 11:43 am

Beautiful review, which perfectly evokes the poet’s mind and work. And of course his sadly premature end.

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