In her essay "Home," Mary Oliver writes about the value of those homely, undramatic landscapes that we come to know in an intimate way by living in them day after day, year after year, season after season. Reading her words, I was reminded of my own patch of ground: the small woodland behind my studio and the rise of Nattadon Hill beyond, whose modest beauties are deepened by my steady relationship with them. I walk their paths nearly every day: I know the trees and the stones in all kinds of weather; I know where the sicklewort grows, and the Jack-in-Pulpits; I know where the badger setts are, where the owls come to roost. I grieve when storms damage the stalwart old oaks and celebrate when the bluebells return. All this makes the hillside dear to me, but one needn't live in the countryside to value the physical world we live in -- including the good green lungs of our cities, the raffish edgelands between country and town, and those blessed pockets of wilderness that break through in even the tamest of suburbs. We are all affected by the land that we live on (for good or for ill), if not always properly attentive to that soul-deep connection.
In the following passage from Oliver's essay, she speaks of the way her own familiar landscape, on the north-east coast of America, shaped her psyche and creative work:
"A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It's the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world -- especially to the part of which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate. It's no great piece of furniture in the universe -- no Niagara, or rainforest, or Sahara. Yet it is beautiful, and ripples in the weathers as lively as any outpouring from the Great Lakes.
"In its minor turns, and tinsels, and daily changes, this landscape seems actually intent on providing pleasures, as indeed it does; in its constancy, its inexorable obedience to laws I cannot begin to imagine much less understand, it is still a richer companion -- steady commentary against my own lesser moods -- my flightiness, my indifferences, my mind and heart absences.
"I mean, by such flightiness, something that feels unsatisfied at the center of my life -- that makes me shaky, fickle, inquisitive, and hungry. I could call it a longing for home and not be far wrong. Or I could call it a longing for whatever supercedes, if cannot pass through, understanding. Other words that come to mind: faith, grace, rest. In my outer appearance and life habits I hardly change -- there's never been a day that friends haven't been able to say, at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.' But at the center I am shaking, I am flashing like tinsel....
"Daily I walk out across my landscape, the same fields, the same woods, and the same pale beaches; I stand by the same blue and festive sea where the invisible winds, on late summer afternoons, are wound into huge, tense coils, and the waves put on their feathers and begin to leap shoreward, to their last screaming and throbbing landfall. Times beyond remembering I have seen such moments: summer falling to fall, to be followed by what will follow: winter again: count on it. Opulant and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly."
And on that land, she continues,
"I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have bedrock from which to descend. The constancy of the physical world, under its green and blue dyes, draws me toward a better, richer self, call it elevation (there is hardly an adequate word), where I might ascend a little -- where a gloss of spirit would mirror itself in worldly action. I don't mean just mild goodness. I mean feistiness too, the fires of human energy stoked; I mean a gladness vivacious enough to disarrange the sorrows of the world into something better....
"It is one of the great perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape -- between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety."
As I walk the paths of the hill and woods, over and over and over again, following after my bouncy black dog, I'm aware that I do need this place, this connection with something both older and larger than I am. My dreams are steeped in its soft morning mists and cold winter rains; my art is shaped by its moss-covered rocks, its hoary old oaks, its rowan trees bright with red berries. It's not the first or the only landscape I've loved. It will probably not be the last. But every day I walk on the hill...and look...and listen, paying attention. I "stand around in the weeds" and scribble in a notebook. On good days, on bad days, I'm here. On the hill.
Fearing storms, but still standing.
The art today is by Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), a leading member of the Newlyn School of art. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Forbes studied in London, New York, and Munich, and spent time in the Pont-Aven art colony in Brittany, before settling in Cornwall: first in St. Ives, then in the fishing village of Newlyn (where she married fellow painter Stanhope Forbes). She was only 52 when she died of cancer, yet she created an extraordinary body of work -- ranging from rural scenes influenced by the plein air movement to illustrative works reflecting her love of folklore and fairy stories.
To learn more about this remarkable women, I recommend Singing from the Walls: The Life & Art of Elizabeth Forbes by Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne.
The text quoted above is from Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate.