contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Scotland

CONTEMPLATING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS

As we approach the turn of the year, I am thinking of recent ancestors and the visual records they have left. This photograph is of my paternal great grandmother was taken by a professional photographer in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can see that it has been carefully posed. This is before the era of family snaps, let alone selfies. Being photographed is an occasion.

At that time the family were tenant farmers in East Lothian, Scotland, and the photographer was based in Haddington, the county town. I am sad to say that I know very little about my great grandmother as an individual, of who she really was. In her picture I read both dignity and diffidence. A certain natural stillness, perhaps, and inner strength. In a sense she was the matriarch of an family group in which the tenancy was largely worked by two sons, one of whom had a family of his own, though I am not sure of how far she filled that role.

I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and understanding even as I write, and I’m trying not to default into writing about my great grand father instead. I do know a bit about him – strong traditional Presbyterian, Elder of the Kirk, political Unionist whose Unionism extended to the whole of Britain and Ireland. I do imagine my great grandmother as being in the slip stream of all this. She didn’t live long enough to be a voter; I don’t even know how she felt about this. She did live long enough to know my father and his sister as children and there is an indirect link through them, though they didn’t actually say much about her to me. The picture below is from 1909, with the two children looking dressed up and solemn.

I do not have to go far back in family history to find myself in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, and to appreciate that I am an outsider to my own family members. I was given little family information about these days when growing up, and the very aspects of pre-1914 history and culture that I have studied or engaged with were ones that didn’t enrol my great grandparents. They were the older generation, defined by both their immediate culture and the reign of Queen Victoria, only recently ended.

The world of these photographs was not to last. When my great grandfather, predeceased by my great grandmother, died in 1916, the tenancy ended and neither of his sons negotiated a new one. My grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt moved to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and became a corn merchant. His brother emigrated to Australia. The heavy duty politics and religion were ameliorated. A way of life had gone. My father, born in 1907, moved to England in 1929 and I was born in Somerset in 1949, much closer to my mother’s family who came from Exeter in Devon. The years have continued to roll on. 1949 was only forty years on from the picture of the two children. There have been seventy one years since, which is food for thought in itself. Looking at her portrait, I understand that whilst I do not know, and will never know, my great grandmother, I can appreciate her through the image that’s presented, without narrative information, and also without mythology or romance.

BOOK REVIEW: SOUL LAND

Highly recommended to anyone who values the poetry of place. Natalia Clarke’s Soul Land: Nature, Scotland, Love (1) is a chapbook featuring 22 poems about her connection with Scottish landscape. That connection is intense, and shared in these poems through a powerful and distinctive voice.

The poet grew up in Siberia, enjoying “immersive life and experiences with nature and magic” (2), before being exposed to “intense emotions of love and loss at a tender age”. Her journey took her to England and its publishing industry with a later shift into the field of psychotherapy and a personal spiritual awakening. This is the context for the visit to Scotland “that changed me on a profound level”. She fell in love with what she came to call her “Soul Land”.

In the poem Love Everlasting, she writes:

“My knees touched the greenness

of your body and in

awe I stood amidst a stone

circle feeling protected and

contained.

I lowered myself into your

cooling stream imagining I

washed myself anew”.

The words have both erotic and mystical resonances: perhaps it misses the point even to make the distinction. In another poem The Land of Me, she talks of the land “stealing my soul” and how this theft feels like “the gentlest fall into paradise”.

This is not a song of life and work within a landscape and the human culture it has shaped, and which has shaped it in turn. It is a personal I-Thou connection with a sacred space that the poet visits from time to time. Natalia Clarke is clear and sensitive about this, as shown in Through the Eyes of A Highlander, where we find a different consciousness of place, and in his case, its human history: “Where I see beauty he sees barren landscape … where I feel silence he shudders with sorrow”. Natalia Clarke knows that her sense of home, in this for her newly discovered land, is bound up with her own life and longing, and what she brings to the encounter.

In the later poems we find a closer observation of detail – “water silky soft and the colour of silver … green pine needles hitting my senses with clean potent fragrance”. The land feels more maternal – even, in a sense grandmaternal. In the poem In My Dreams You Visit Me the poet finds herself “transformed into the old Cailleach walking the hills and mountains with deer by her side”.

Natalia Clarke feels blessed in this wild space: “inhaling paradise, assured, grounded, humble, in your exquisite perfection”. Although led by her intuition and her feelings, she shows how her experience of the Scottish landscape has indeed grounded her.

“’All is well,’ the land whispers

into my soul spreading her

seasons around me”.

In a prose conclusion to the collection, Natalia Clarke also spells out the conceptual basis of her way of experiencing and relating. The key terms are ‘home’, ‘soul’s calling’ and ‘nature’. Home is “our secure ground, safety and knowing” with a feeling-tone that is “contented and contained”. She speaks here as a person who has lost her link with her “original motherland” and has needed to find ‘home’ elsewhere. A soul call is “very impulse driven, animalistic and instinctual”, asking us “to be more, to feel more” and join “something beyond yourself, new, meaningful and expansive”. Nature is not simply about solace. Deep understanding of nature can bring both peace and turmoil into our souls, “as processes are parallel within nature and if we tune into nature’s rhythms, we risk deeper understanding of ourselves”. True homecoming, the homecoming that involves soul, asks us to take risks as well as offering safety. For Natalia Clarke, Nature favours the brave.

(1) Soul Land: Nature – Scotland -Love Kibworth, UK: Matador, 2020

(2) https://rawnaturespirit.com/ (The collection can be ordered from this site by clicking on ‘publications’.)

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