Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids


This morning, as I was wondering whether to write something about Ted Hughes in the context of recent hill walks on a rather bleak and exploited stretch of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border -a place he reportedly retreated to during the awful personal nadir from which Crow emerged- an e-mail arrived with a link to a documentary involving Hughes, made by the National Film Board of Canada (in 1994), called Seven Crows a Secret What follows is a brief recommendation of the film, and a footnote on a possible source for the idea of Cave Birds.

In the film a rather subdued and life worn Hughes (who only had another few years to live) reads from Crow and (towards the end) talks about the crow as ‘the totemic oracular god of Britain, a fact which has unfortunately been forgotten’.  Interestingly, given his views on the potential magical power of the photographic image, and doubtless also an understandable resistance to biographical exposure, he doesn’t look into the camera at any point.

The film opens slowly, but if you’re interested in Ted Hughes, crows, or bird lore, its worth persisting.  The first interviewee is Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and printmaker whose extraordinary drawings enliven the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds.  It was Baskin (who also had only a few years left to live when the film was made) who had found Hughes in a very depressed state and suggested he write some crow poems.  I don’t concur with the bleak view of birds, or the rest of nature, he expresses in the film, but I wouldn’t want to judge a Jewish artist renowned for his scupltures at the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial on that score.

The film also visited Bernd Heinrich, an engaging ornithologist who conducted influential research on ravens.  Heinrich kept pet crows from a young age, and several years before his major life project on ravens began, recorded a dream in which he heard ravens croaking, telling him that their nest was near.(2)  There’s some nice footage of ravens in the film, and the commentary highlights the widespread negative perception of corvids, pointing out that crows are ‘a model of monagmous devotion’, and loyal parents, and that ravens will give their nest over to their growing chicks, going elsewhere to roost in order to give them space.  This endearing habit has been misinterpreted in beliefs that ravens make bad parents.  Prejudice of this kind is contrasted with a Haida story of the raven ‘trickster’ who coaxed little creatures into the world with his beautiful soft voice, before the first Haida Indians were born.

It’s often assumed that birds don’t mourn, so I was pleased to hear about two ravens at the Tower of London, named Huggin and Munin after Odin’s raven emissaries.  After the female, Munnin, died from a heart attack, her partner Huggin mourned for two years before showing signs of interest in another bird.

After centuries of persecution ravens have benefitted greatly from legal protection in the U.K.   Since the 1990’s they have returned to most areas, including the Lancashire/Yorkshire Pennines.  Unfortunately, following a spate of predation by ravens on lambs in Scotland, farmers and gamekeepers are now calling for them to join other corvids on the list of species on the General Licence.  This would enable landowners to kill them without applying for permission each time (at present ‘destructive ravens’ can be shot or trapped under individual licences).  The R.S.P.B. and other conservation bodies are opposing this  move, which could precipitate an indiscriminate cull. (see here).  Gamekeepers, who clearly don’t regard the crow as an oracular totemic god, and who, ironically, often invoke pejorative lore about the ‘unkindness’ of ravens, justify this on ecological grounds.  Research shows, however, that the presence of ravens has not been a significant factor in the precipitous decline (by up to 50% in the last quarter of century) in populations of wading birds such as lapwing, dunlin, golden plover, snipe, and curlew. (see here and here).

Raven, Corax Corax.

Raven, Corax Corax. (Photo, Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Cave Birds?

I’m not a huge fan of Ted Hughes’s Crow collection.  Ironically, given that he clearly realised the harm done by negative lore and beliefs about corvids, Crow, which was truncated by the second appalling tragedy in his life, has been criticised for its unremitting and unredeemed bleakness.  I agree with those who prefer Hughes’s shamanistic sequel, Cave Birds, in which existential anguish is assuaged, if not resolved, in moments of beauty and ecstasy, though like Hughes, I feel ambivalent about its appropriation of ornithomorphic imagery to explore all-too-human concerns.

After writing about Cave Birds (here) I stumbled upon a reference to the use of actual ‘cave birds’ in Hittite divination.  The birds in question were thought to have been a kind of partridge, the tadorna, which were either sacrificed and subjected to haruspicy (the examination of their entrails) or an examination of superficial signs on their bodies, or released so that their flight could be interpreted.(1)  Ann Skea was unable to find the original sources (dated 1963, 1966, and 1975) in Ted Hughes’ library at Emory University, but thought he may have come across them at Cambridge University library, to which he kept returning (pers comm).

Whether or not Hughes was aware of this connection, there’s a tradition within astrology (and other esoteric disciplines) that names can be significant, even where significance was not intended.  Given that an autobiogaphical strand permeates Cave Birds, given that Ted Hughes’ life would be subjected to intense biographical scrutiny, and not least given the poems’ imagery of interrogation, judgement, disembowelling, lobotomy, and the skinning of souls, a co-incidental naming of the collection after birds who were sacrificed and had their entrails examined, would perhaps have been apt.

B.T 2/5/16 updated on 24/5/16.


(1) Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker eds.  Divination and Oracles, London, George Allen and Unwin. 1981 pp 151 and 153-4 (and references on pp170-171).

(2) Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, Harper Perennial, 1999.

Also: Ted Hughes. Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Faber and Faber, 1970 and Cave Birds, Viking Press, 1978.

On alchemical symbolism in Cave Birds see Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England Press (1994), also her web page on Crow.







Spirit Possession, Deities, and Gnats.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Western discourse about spirit possession emerged from a long history of Christian demonology.  After the Enlightenment it came to be regarded as ‘one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of human civilization’, and, thanks to E.B.Tylor’s late nineteenth century theory of animism, became ‘a founding term in the discipline of anthropology’.  Tylor’s observation that “to the minds of the lower races it seems that nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings” expresses the sense that, for animists the spirit world was (and still is) inhabited by all manner of other-than-human beings.(1)

A recent review of spirit possession encompasses both ‘the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness’, and ‘the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors, and deities, for social and ritual reasons’.  Although traditions vary considerably, the use of altered states to communicate with a spirit world and the divine is still recognised as a global phenomenon.(2)  For present purposes, I want to set aside questions about the dualistic origin of the terminology of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ in order to ponder lived experience.

The recent proliferation of neo-Shamanic practices has encouraged many Westerners to become the kind of animists Tylor denounced as primitive.  Re-reading some passages from Michael Harner’s influential book The Way of the Shaman I was struck by some implausible statements.  For instance: “the guardian animal spirit resident in the mind-body of a person wants to have the enjoyment of once again existing in material form.  It is a trade off, for the person gets the power of the whole genus or species of animals represented by that guardian spirit“.(my italics).(3)  That kind of claim makes me wonder about the appeal of core shamanism, about how it perceives illness and disability, and about its therapeutic approach.

Critics have argued that, unlike most traditional shamans, Harner emphasises the controllability of shamanic experience, and that this plays on Western stereotypes that devalue practices such as trance and spirit possession that involve a temporary suspension of control and rationality.  Against this, however, Harner has been concerned for the safety of vulnerable workshop attendees.(4)  He also believes that we can have ‘power animals’ without being aware of their presence, or knowing when they go AWOL.  In that sense, shamanic consciousness could be seen as restoring a degree of much needed agency.

In The Way  of the Shaman Harner writes that a patient’s power animal is hardly ever an insect.  Whilst we might agree that swarming insects are best left alone, whether materially embodied or in spirit form, others have pointed out that insects such as spiders, butterflies, or bees, may have considerable cultural or personal significance.  Experience suggests that, like birds and mammals, insects are occasionally willing to help humans by appearing, in the flesh, at times of need, or as divinatory messengers.  I’ve personally seen, read, or been reliably told about, instances involving butterflies, moths, ants, and wasps.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

In his 1967 poem Gnat Psalm, Ted Hughes, an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, gleefully describes dancing gnats in angelic and cosmic terms, and declares God to be ‘an Almighty Gnat’.  This, of course, graphically highlights the anthropocentric nature of most deities venerated by humans.  It also invites us to wonder why other-than-human beings have so often been demonised, or portrayed as machines.  Since much of the work of traditional shamans entails inter-species mediation in situations where predation or control of other animals by humans becomes unavoidable, we should not be surprised that many writers on spirit possession discuss the potential dangerousness of some spirit beings.(5)

Where Harner has been criticised for sanitising shamanism, American neo-Pagans Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, who describe their own experiences of possession vividly, have been taken to task for popularising a dangerously intense form of practice.  Kaldera, who has always seen auras, tells us that from the age of sixteen “my vision would blur, I would feel as though I was falling, and then I would hear through a fog a distant voice speaking to the friend next to me.  It was my voice, but it didn’t sound like me”.  On one occasion he was surprised to be told that he had addressed her using a secret name know only to herself.  “Another presence had moved into my body and shoved me aside.  I could only flounder as it used me and moved on”.

At the age of seventeen he left home and found acceptance at a Voudou Umband House where he was shown ‘the practicalities of god possession’.  Watching participants possessed by deities he saw their auras shrink away to almost nothing before “Something Else blossomed in their place -something with an aura that reached out across the room, bright and powerful like nothing I’d seen in a body before”.  He then realised that he too had a ‘gift/curse’ that could not be unchosen.  His own experiences of trance possession also begin with a sense of ‘receding’ from one’s own body and senses, followed by the arrival of the Spirit ‘in a rush of colour, image, and pure feeling, much larger than oneself’.(6)  Once again this does seems to be about power of some kind coming through.

I recognise enough of the elements here to trust this account of the phenomenology of the further reaches of spirit possession.  My younger self would certainly have benefited from some first hand practical information.  Given that I also had visionary experiences at a time of existential crisis, and given the long history of medicalising both madness and spirit possession, however, I hope the authors of this book -who are clearly well intentioned and informed about other political sensibilities- will reconsider their uncritical use of biomedical psychiatric labels (‘mental illness’, ‘florid schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’ etc).  Sadly they’re not alone among neo-Pagan authors in appearing not to have noticed many decades of struggle and writing by the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements (e.g. around hearing voices).  Stanislav and Christina Grof’s notion of ‘spiritual emergency’ also offers an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis in such situations and has received favourable attention within psychiatry.(7)

Filan and Kaldera do point out that in traditional societies people often fear and resist the call to shamanism, and emphasise the need to avoid romanticising the gift/curse of spirit-work, especially where it involves full blown possession rather than mediumship (a.k.a. channelling, or co-consciousness).  Personally I’ve not been convinced of the advantage of spirit possession as distinct from less intrusive, less dramatic, more dialogical forms of contact, as a means of providing help, healing, guidance, or divinatory knowledge -which, hopefully, is what all of this is about.  That said though, there’s clearly a need to discuss a phenomenon that some people evidently have no option but to engage with, and for the kinds of peer support amongst spirit-workers that these authors call for.

B.T. 2/3/15 (re-edited 3/3/15).


(1) Paul Christopher Johnson, Whence Spirit Possession?, in Graham Harvey ed. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’, quoting from E.B.Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Johnson discusses spirit posession as a response to slavery and colonialism.

(2) Jack Hunter, Folk Models of Mind and Matter, in Jack Hunter and David Luke, Talking with the Spirits, Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, Daily Grail, 2014.

(3) Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row, 1980/1990, p68.

(4) Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Paganisms, Routledge, 2003, p54.

(5) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, 2003, or Wodwo, 1967, Faber and Faber.

(6) Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, Drawing Down the Spirits; the Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Posession, Destiny Books, 2009.

(7) Nicki Crowley, Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? -Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry 2006.

Rufus May and Elanor Longdon Hearing Voices and Self Help.

U.K. Spiritual Crisis Network.

Mad in America website.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.


(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.

Notes from the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley – Part 4.

Animal Rock in Snow

Animate Rock.

The Bride

The Bride

The Elmet Poems and Collective Renewal

How far, then, can Ted Hughes’ Elmet poems be said to prefigure, inspire, reflect, or inform, subsequent cultural transformations, and efforts towards ecological reparation in the Calder Valley?  I can only offer a tentative personal answer, which would be that they inspire and provoke by turns.  At their best, the poems are charged with a compressed and cryptic magical ‘spirituality’ that puts rational scientific/managerial discourse about ‘nature’ in question.  Hughes arguably comes as close as anyone can to articulating the numinous.  If the Elmet poems have helped to resacralise the land that is a significant feat, achieved against the hegemonic grain of transcendental cosmology and religion.  The culminating sequence of poems in Remains of Elmet, –I’m thinking of Heptonstall Old Church, Cock-Crows, Heptonstall Cemetery, and The Angel- weaves threads from the folkloric association between birds and death around intimate autobiographical material, and constitutes what amounts to a remarkable ‘tribal dream’.

Ted Hughes re-mythologised the land by drawing on his boyhood memories and ancestral connections.  The Elmet poems are a personal vision, but nevertheless widely recognised as an important contribution to the storying of this place.  Where they work less well, for me, is on the cultural and social level.  He was understandably ambivalent about including very much overtly personal detail.  Two of his finest auto/biographical poems –The Source and Dust as We Are- about his mother and father respectively, appeared in Wolfwatching, but were left out of Elmet, even though both parents had died by the time the book was published.(20)

As a former social geographer who once pored over census returns for the valley, I saw Remains -with its depictions of labour, hunting, war, sport, and the reminiscences of old age- as a requiem for an indigenous white working-class culture, and a particular formation of masculinity. Even Fay Godwin’s photographs focus mainly on older white male figures.  In the later Elmet collection Roarers in a Ring‘ describes a group of farmers getting drunk on Christmas eve.  I was involved in two very different anti-sexist men’s groups that met, in the early to mid-80’s, in the houses and flats in the accompanying photograph.  Those walk-up flats have since been demolished, leaving me with some mid-air ghost memories of my own.  There were also, I’m told, about a dozen women’s groups in Hebden Bridge at that time.  During the well named Plath Wars, Ted Hughes could hardly have been expected to respond positively to second wave feminism.  Conceived as a requiem for a dying indigenous culture of chapels and mills, the Elmet poems would in any case have missed these crucibles of social change, but there were earlier manifestations of feminism in the Valley.  In 1907, the suffragist Mrs Emeline Pankhurst came to Hebden Bridge to speak in support of striking fustian weavers.  She was welcomed by a brass band and huge crowds, many of whom had to be turned away.  Three young suffragettes from the town were amongst those arrested and sent to Holloway jail after an attack on the House of Commons in March of that year.(21)

Remains of Elmet makes no reference to the arrival of Polish, Ukrainian, or Pakistani immigrants in the valley.  A friend who came to this country from the ‘West Indies’ as a young man in the 1950’s, lived in the valley during the 1970’s.  Returning as an elderly man, ravaged by diabetes -he told me that having a sweet tooth was part of the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, because of cheap and plentiful sugar- he experienced generous support from a close knit community.  Sadly, he had also encountered some crude racism in local mills and pubs.  At his funeral, one of the visiting mourners surprised us by declaring Todmorden to be ‘just like Barbados’.  I’ve wondered what an Elmet sequel, collected from a range of different voices, might look like.

Perhaps Ted Hughes was too good at evoking a depressive mood associated with the long ebb tide of economic and population decline?  Several friends who are older ‘born and bred’ Todmordians have told me that they thought the community needed fresh blood, and that diversification has been a good thing.

hebden bridge community prex362

cvp no2363

In the introduction to Elmet, Hughes notes that Methodism has been superseded by the ‘New Age’.  I invoke the front pages of two community newspapers as evidence (pace Terry Gifford) that not everyone who came to live here during the 1970’s was preoccupied with whale music.  That particular issue of Calder Valley Press, from the year when Remains was published, carried an interview with the shop steward at Ward and Goldstone’s Mons Mill (re-named after the First World War battle, and demolished in 2,000) about the implications of computerised car electronics for the three hundred, mainly female, workers at the plant.

Several very dynamic projects are currently attempting to heal the environmental wounds of the industrial revolution, not least by responding to climate change.  The Elmet poems are, I think, potentially relevant because of the animist questions they pose -are we, at long last, managing to reconceptualise human relations with nature?  Can today’s exponents of wind and water power be said to be grounding their work in a newly respectful relationship with ‘the Mothers’, the elements, and the genii loci, or are they simply another manifestation of the objectification of nature as an economic resource?  As long as their work results in a more ‘sustainable’ form of human ecology, does  it matter whether we conceptualise it in terms of relationship with, or participation in, an animate world, -or in ‘spiritual’ terms, that are likely to be divisive?

Lower and Upper Lumb Mills c1900.  To the right is the home of Richard Sutcliffe who built the mills c1802, was owned by Ted Hughes.

Lower and Upper Lumb Mills c1900. To the right is the home of Richard Sutcliffe who built the mills c1802, owned briefly by Ted Hughes. Photo: jack Uttley photo library, courtesy of Hebden Bridge Local History Society.

The Water Wheel at Holme House Mill c1900, Luddenden Brook. Alice Longstaff Collection, Courtesy of hebden Bridge Local History Society.

The Water Wheel at Holme House Mill c1900, Luddenden Brook. Alice Longstaff Collection, Courtesy of Hebden Bridge Local History Society.

A recent booklet produced by the Alternative Technology Centre in Hebden maps the approximate sites of over 50 former water mills.  Some of these were quite large, such as the two six storey mills at Eaves, where silk was spun, that probably inspired the otherwise obscure title of ‘Chinese History of Colden Water’.  Since, like Ted Hughes’ account of the valley, their map depends upon a Hebden centric definition of the Upper Calder Valley, it considerably underestimates the number of water mills.(22)  A historical weir that once regulated the flow of Walsden Water for Waterside Mill has just been installed on a plinth at Fielden Square Todmorden, a site that was under several feet of fast flowing water during one of the floods that has swept along the valley in recent years.  Hopefully it will serve as a protective talisman against further inundation.  The accompanying map shows another fourteen water mills along Walsden Water alone. Several new small scale hydropower schemes have been installed recently to generate electricity.

A partnership project called ‘the Source‘ is working towards a long term vision of ecological restoration in the headwaters of the Calder, by organising appropriate tree planting and moorland restoration, treating damaged land, improving river quality, and undertaking educational activities.  They claim that upland blanket bog is Britain’s foremost globally significant habitat type because of its rarity and the ability of peat to sequester carbon.  A study they commissioned showed that, during one of several recent floods, almost four tonnes of water fell on the catchment of one of the Calder’s tributaries, the Hebden Water, alone.  This is, of course, an example of practical engagement with a ‘creative/destructive’ universe, that Ted Hughes also called ‘the source’.(23)

The Rochdale Canal, Re-Opened 1985, No Longer 'Black'.

The Rochdale Canal, Re-Opened 1985, No Longer ‘Black’?

Terry Gifford draws attention to Ted Hughes’ references to a Golden Age in Tales from Ovid, and advocates a post-pastoral poetry that avoids both pastoral idealisation and anti-pastoral reaction.  Its interesting, then, to note that the notion of a Golden Age, in this case of hand-loom weaving, has long been an important feature of debates about the social history of the Calder Valley.  Memories of the independence, relatively easy-going and varied life, and self-education, associated with earlier weaving communities inspired the chartist movement.  E.P.Thompson quotes a hand loom weaver who obtained work in a mill, lamenting: ‘I used to go out in the fields and woods … at meal times, and listen to the song of summer birds, or watch the trembling waters of the Ludden … I collected insects, in company with a number of young men from the village.  We formed a library … and a companion of mine collected twenty two large boxes of insects, one hundred and twenty different sorts of British bird’s eggs, besides a great quantity of shells (land and fresh water), fossils, minerals, ancient and modern coins …’. (24).  Records from that period suggest that, for a time at least, local communities might once have lived in relative ecological and cultural equilibrium.

The notion of Arcadia surfaced again during the 1906 fustian weavers strike, when a co-partnership scheme at Eaves hoped to construct an explicitly ‘Arcadian’ settlement around a co-operatively owned mill. Another of today’s dynamic local projects, Incredible Edible Todmorden, aims to provide access to good local food for all.  Their website includes evidence on food self-sufficiency from an 1828 small tithes survey, and memories of older residents about gathering wild food.

Bee Mural, Todmorden Library.

Bee Mural, by Weston Hammond, Todmorden Library.


Ted Hughes imagined the valley as the last part of the last British Celtic kingdom to succumb to the Angles, and its inhabitants as the last Celtic survivors in England.  Not much is known about the Romano-British Kingdom of Elmet, but other parts of Yorkshire may have a better claim to be its remains. The area to the east of Leeds still has various Elmet place names, including a parliamentary constituency.  Historical Elmet may have finally fallen to the Saxons at a battle near the former Roman settlement of Bawtry.  Hughes could equally have written about the remains of the earlier Kingdom of Brigantia.  Was the long lost Celtic Elmet, then, Hughes’ personal Arcadia?  Although its now thought that there was a long period of assimilation and inter-marriage between the Saxons and Britons (rather than a wholesale expulsion of the latter), the Saxons are said to have introduced a politically controlled literacy ‘whose linearity cut through native ancestral space with the point of a pen’.(25)  This account, if accurate, resonates with David Abram’s influential discussion of the the role of literacy in the demise of primal animism.(26)

Ted Hughes called the Calder Valley his ‘tuning fork’ because it is was the source of the language he crafted so powerfully, and because it was the site of his formative experiences of a living world.  The Valley has seen a lot of change since Remains of Elmet was published.  Otters are now being recorded in the Upper Calder.  The repair, conservation, and protection, of once badly wounded land, and rivers, is still a considerable challenge though.  There’s a new appreciation of the richness of the natural world, and I hope, of both the remarkable industrial history of the upper Calder Valley, and the rich history of political radicalism, co-operation, and community spirit.  Ted Hughes’ poetry is widely valued for its documentation of an important period in the valley’s history, and as an inspirational resource.

B.T 9/12/13, updated 10/12/13.

20) Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

21) Hebden Bridge Web, Fustian Weaver’s Strike, Hebden Bridge 1906-1908, Based on Leslie Goldthorpe, Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, Local History Booklet, No 3. 1982.

22) Power in the Landscape, Hebden Bridge Centre for Alternative Technology, 2007.

23) Understanding the Hebden Water Catchment, September 2103, Treesponsibility/The Source.

24) E.P Thompson, Op Cit. Linda Croft, Op Cit.

25) Joshua Davis, The Absent Anglo-Saxon Past in Ted Hughes’ Elmet, pp237-53 in David Clark and Nicholas Perkins, eds. Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, D.S.Brewer, 2010, citing Alfred Siewers.

26) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-than-Human-World, Vintage, 1996.

The above is a work in progress, and will be updated occasionally.  You can e-mail me by using the contact form at the bottom of the home page.  Let me know if you would like some or all of your comments included below.

Notes from the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley – part 3.

Path and Reservoir. Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977.  Photograph: Fay Godwin.

Path and Reservoir. Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977. Photograph: Fay Godwin.


Keith Sagar aptly described the moors above the Calder Valley as both ‘bleak’ and ‘exhilarating’.  Since the ‘tops’ round here offer almost no shelter from the elements, the experience of being up there is very dependent upon weather conditions, which sometimes change dramatically and quickly.  Ted Hughes thought of the land as a huge animal, harnessed by dry stone walls, but now gently shaking herself free of walls, chimneys, chapels, mills, and houses.  On the moorland tops the spirit of this place can be felt, heard, and because of the clarity of light, seen, most clearly.  In Hughes’ account, people, stone, and what he called ‘the mothers’, the sustaining elements of earth, air, fire, and water, have all been conscripted as economic resources.  We should not be surprised that someone born in 1930 used a military metaphor.  Sagar concludes his essay on Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley by echoing his friend’s call for a process of healing and rededication, so that humans can once again approach Nature with respect and humility, ‘for purposes, one hopes, rather more natural, sane and worthily human than the enslavement of body and spirit which has characterized Protestantism and capitalism in England’.(10)

In the poem Moors, the landscape belongs to primal other-than-human powers.  Humans are inconsequential interlopers who would be well advised to retreat before nightfall.  Local folklore confirms this sense of the land being strangely alive.  It is said that whenever a stone was dislodged from the cairn that occupied the site on which Stoodley Pike now stands, flames would emerge from the ground.  Some say that a light can still be seen there when the way to the otherworld is open.(11).  The moors in Fay Godwin’s photograph became a ‘picadilly circus’ for U.F.O’s in the early 1980’s.  Two friends who went up there on a full Moon night got more than they bargained for.  They ended up running as fast as they could, followed by a strange oval light that then shot away across the valley.  Paul Devereux linked such phenomena with seismic activity in the Craven fault, and called them earthlights.(12)

Other poems in Remains of Elmet -Where the Mothers, These Grasses of Light, Open to Huge Light, Long Screams, Curlews in April, Curlew Lift, The Big Animal of Rock, High Sea Light, Bridestones, Where the Millstone of Sky, and Spring Dusk- have a visionary quality that is sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes delicately celebratory.  Ann Skea finds traces of Blake, Poryphry, alchemy, and neo-Platonic cosmology, in their imagery of incarnating light (soul).(13)  Most contemporary animists, however, come from an earth-centred rather than transcendental perspective, so -like Hughes himself, I suspect- would want to ensure that any symbolic reading of more-than-human worlds doesn’t lessen our appreciation of the living material reality, the personhood**, of land, trees, and birds, in their own right.  Ted Hughes was, of course, deeply concerned with materially real trout, curlew, and snipe.

The moors to the left of this image are part of an area designated as internationally important for its moorland bird populations. Some species, such as raven and peregrine falcon have returned quite recently, the latter thanks to the protective vigilance of local conservationists and birders.  Others, such as the curlew, evoked so beautifully in several Elmet poems, are now in precipitous decline in the U.K.  These moors are also the closest thing to wild land that’s reasonably accessible to several million people living in nearby conurbations.  They’re not originary ‘natural’ wilderness however.  The hills overlooking the Calder Valley were covered in mixed woodland during the mesolithic era, would have been deforested during the bronze and iron ages, and have probably only been open moorland since Roman times.(14)  The stone paved causey -a former packhorse track- in Fay Godwin’s image, reminds us that there’s more to their cultural history than hill farming and grouse shooting.  This was the route taken by workers walking over from Cragg Vale, four miles away, in all weathers, for an early morning start at the mill powered by those dams close to the right hand margin of her photograph.

John Fielden's Todmorden, with Alfred W. Bayes 'Chartist Meeting at the Basin Stone 1840'.

John Fielden’s Todmorden, with Alfred W. Bayes ‘Chartist Meeting at the Basin Stone 1842’.

My main reservation about Remains of Elmet has been that it overlooked a significant history of political activism during the Industrial Revolution era that was strongly associated with these hilltops. Evocative accounts can be found in the writings of E. P. Thompson, and local historian Linda Croft.(15)  Alfred W. Bayes’ dramatic painting A Chartist Meeting, Basin Stone, Todmorden, 1842, depicts a mass meeting held on the moors above Walsden on 18th August 1842.  The location of this iconic event is just over the darkened horizon in Fay Godwin’s pictureIn the first half of the 19th Century the Calder Valley was a hive of working class organisation and agitation, with friendly societies, proto trade unions, Owenite co-operatives, working men’s associations, and riots against the New Poor Law of 1834 that ended out-relief in order to incarcerate paupers in large workhouses (a ‘reform’ that Todmorden resisted for more than forty years).  Against a backdrop of economic depression and considerable hardship, the Plug Riots of August 1842 saw between 15,000 and 20,000 people, armed with ‘thick hedge stakes’, pour into Todmorden from Rochdale and Bacup. The next day, a procession heading for Halifax took two hours to pass a given point.  In rioting that ensued one protester was killed and others seriously wounded by Hussars. Returning from Halifax, the Todmorden strikers met at the Basin stone, and were urged not to go back to work ‘until the Charter be got’.

This was not an isolated event. Many large Chartist meetings were held on hilltops across the South and West Pennine moors.  As Katrina Navickas puts it ‘the routes and topography of the moors and fields became as symbolic as the torn flags of Peterloo or the tunes played by brass bands’.  The Pennine moors were liminal spaces that afforded a degree of protection (they were not vulnerable to surprise cavalry attack), and with their panoramic views over nearby towns, no doubt gave desperate people a sense of the possibility of excercising collective power over their daily lives.  The Basin Stone served as a natural podium, and the surrounding landscape ‘contributed to the sense of spectacle, and the extraordinary, experienced by participants’. Many of the Chartist events were held on holidays and wakes, and had a festival like atmosphere.  The sense of exhilaration widely experienced at such places no doubt contributed to the spiritual dimension of protests at which Hymns with an overt political message were often sung.(16)

The Hudsonite Chartists held annual meetings at the Basin Stone on Spaw Sunday -the first Sunday in May-  a date associated with well dressings and labour politics.  They wore green, and satirised organised religion, by, for example, riding donkeys decked with ribbons at weddings.  James Hudson declared that ‘all the land in the world belonged to all the people in it’, and wanted to cultivate the ‘uncultured’ land around the Basin Stone.  Another speaker at one of their meetings declared that no man had the right to live on another man’s labour.  They have, therefore, been regarded as ‘anarchist-radicals in the classic Digger tradition’.(17)  One of Terry Gifford’s criteria for post-pastoral poetry is that it challenges the link between exploitation of our planet and exploitation of human minorities.  We should not, perhaps, expect all poetry of place to work politically, but, once again, readers might wonder whether the references to slavery in Remains suffice. In the re-arranged 1994 collection, Elmet, Hughes himself protests, in Climbing into Heptonstall,that mill-hands and agitators are being erased from collective memory.(18)

The Basin Stone, Walsden Moor.

The Basin Stone, Walsden Moor.

The problem surfaces again in the short poem For Billy Holt, and the image opposite, that, taken together, appear to reduce the subject of the poem to the status of a local ‘character’, a representative of his tribe.  Readers would have no idea that Billy Holt had been imprisoned for his opposition to the means test, or that he had reported from Soviet Russia and the Spanish Civil War.  Interestingly, he regarded the First World War as heaven-sent opportunity to get out of the valley(!), even finding beauty, of a sort, in the trenches, where he managed to facilitate a brief cease-fire for the collection of wounded men and dead bodies.  He was eventually injured, – falling out of a window at Baliol College, Oxford (where he was attending an officer training course), whilst celebrating the Armistice.  As well as being a self taught artist and writer, Billy Holt expounded a religious vision of utopian communism at a public meeting at the Basin Stone in the 1920’s.  He ends his autobiography ‘trapped by the world’, back in a weaving shed, but his mind wanders to visions of ‘free vegetation recovering a fantasy of a devastated world, flowering over smokeless ruins in the sun, releasing new life on heaps of sunbathed masonry in pure air’.(19) In later life he would come into town with Trigger, the abused horse he had rescued and travelled round Europe with. They were inseparable.

Repeatedly then, there is a sense of the land, the high moorland tops, eliciting a broader and deeper vision.  Sylvia Plath found this landscape to be the next best thing to being by the sea.  The astrologer in me thinks of the dreaming depths and ultimately unitive vision of Neptune.  What happens up there can be profound, but difficult to articulate.

Continued in Part 4


** The term Other-than-human persons was coined by the anthroplogist Irving Hallowell to express his Ojibwe friends’ and informants’ perception and acknowledgement of the personhood of non-human animals, stones, thunder, or ancestral presences. It has been quite widely adopted in contemporary animist discourse. See Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 1995.

10) Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley 2012. (accessed 29/11/13).

11) John Billingsley, What is Folklore? Hebden Bridge Local History Society website, 2007. www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk/folklore/what_is_folklore.html

12) Paul Devereux, et al, Earth Lights Revelation, Blandford, 1989.

13) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.

14)  I.G. Simmons, The Moorlands of England and Wales, An Environmental History 8,000 B.C. to 2000 A.D, Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

15) E.P.Thompson, Op Cit. Linda Croft, John Fielden’s Todmorden, Tygerfoot Press, 1994.

16) Katrina Navickas, Moors, Fields, and Popular Protest in South Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire 1800-1848, University of Ediniburgh, 2009.

17) Linda Croft, Op Cit.

18) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral as Reading Strategies, in Scott Slovic (ed.),Critical Insights: Nature and Environment, pp. 42-61, Ipswich: Salam Press, 2012.

19) William Holt, I Haven’t Unpacked, Pan Books, 1939/1966.

Notes from the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley – Part 2

Upper Calder Valley, Wikimedia Commons.

Upper Calder Valley, Wikimedia Commons.

Ancestral Echoes, Capitalism and Nature.

Given that remnant water mills, chimneys, dams, and mill races, can still be found in the middle of woods, or on hillsides, beside fast flowing streams that once powered them, it’s not hard to identify the source of Ted Hughes’ imagery of chimneys flowering and then returning to the earth before a more ecologically conscious culture can emerge.  Not least as an astrologer, I can see (and there is some evidence) that the creative-destructive crises of capitalism may have a deeper grounding in the creative-destructive rhythms of cosmic nature, and that Hughes’ sense of this may well have been informed by his knowledge of astrology.  I can also see the value of de-centring the human by locating human enterprise within a ‘natural’ ecological framework.

Lumb Valley, Yorkshire, 1977,  Fay Godwin.

Lumb Valley, Yorkshire, 1977, photo: Fay Godwin.

This kind of -cosmic, holistic, organismic, or evolutionary- perspective becomes problematic, though, if we overlook or naturalise oppression (‘man-the-hunter can’t help it’  comes to mind), and lose sight of the urgent complexities of power relations based on perceptions of human difference.  Animists and ecologists, like Hughes, who focus on non-human worlds, may be especially susceptible to regarding human communities as unified natural organisms.  When the valley’s mills were abandoned, or adapted for new uses, this may have been part of a ‘natural’ cyclic process, -all human endeavour arguably moves through a cycle of inception, growth, maturity, and decay- but it was also an an expression of the movement of capital.  An emergent capitalist class, if we can still think in those terms, and not surely, as Hughes wrote in his introduction to Elmet, ‘the spirit of the place’, invested in the new technology of mass production.

When Ted Hughes refers to slavery, he includes stone as well as people.  Like the millstone grit, human beings were uprooted from the wild earth and enlisted in mills where they became fixtures, endlessly trembling amongst drumming looms.  The poem Remains of Elmet is juxtaposed against a broodingly dark photograph of Todmorden in the 1970’s.  Fay Godwin described her work as documentary realism, but the images in Remains are poorly reproduced.  Compared with versions that appear in Land and Landmarks, they are drained of luminosity. (compare Top Withens and Path and Reservoir, Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977 in Landmarks, for example).  The version of her view of Todmorden in Remains gains detail in the long rows of terraced housing, but loses the sunlight on distant hills.  The imagery in the title poem is alimentary.  The valley becomes a huge oesophagus, enlarged by a dying glacier.  From a literal geological point of view, this may be somewhat misleading, since the steep sided inner cleft of the valley, as we see it today, was carved into the rising land by rivers swollen by melt water.*  The mill towns are described as cemeteries, digesting all who came there to find work, until nothing was left but an aching absence picked over by tourists.  Again, it was the mill owners, not the towns, that were responsible for the working conditions of the era.

The recent discovery of a National Chartist Hymn Book in Todmorden library reminds us why imagery of hunger haunts this poem.  The sentiment of the tenth hymn needs no translation. “We ask “our daily bread” / nor do we ask in vain; / See, year by year, abundance spread / o’er every fertile plain. // Why starve we then? -ah? Why! / Answer thou wicked priest / Who scarce will give us, when we die / The burial of a beast. /…. / Our right, Great God, OUR RIGHT! / We ask this and no more! / O look down from thy heavenly height / And help thy dying poor!'(8)  Ted Hughes’ introductions to the two Elmet collections give little sense of the intensity of oppression involved in the Industrial Revolution, and apart from a passing mention of the chartists, say even less about the Calder Valley’s considerable history of political resistance.

E.P.Thompson, who wrote his monumental Making of the English Working Class in nearby Halifax, quotes the testimony of a minister on the ‘murderous system’ enforced in Cragg Vale, where mill hands worked 15 or 16 hours a day, sometimes all night.  He’d recently buried a boy who had been found standing asleep, his arms full of wool, after working a seventeen hour day, and been beaten awake.  His father carried him home, where he was unable to eat his supper.  The boy woke up at 4 a.m. the next morning and asked his brothers if they could see the lights of the mill, as he was afraid of being late.  He then died.

Information provided to an 1833 Commission of Enquiry shows that Corporal punishment of children was standard practice in the Valley’s mills.  Todmorden’s radical M.P. John Fielden, was motivated by his own experience of child labour.(9)  The town’s cotton industry was, of course, implicated in colonialism and profited from slavery in the American South.  Today, the end-logic of neoliberal deregulation still generates human tragedies, but these mainly happen in the Global South, or along desperately unsafe escape routes from chronic poverty and war.

Waterside, Todmorden.

Waterside, TodmordenPhoto: Alice Longstaff Collection, courtesy of Hebden Bridge Local History Society.  The site of Waterside Mill is now occupied by Morrison’s supermarket.

Ted Hughes was so good at what he did that I wouldn’t have wanted him to write reams of detailed social realism.  Readers must decide for themselves whether his poems sufficiently honour the history of these formative working class communities, and whether indeed, if they are addressed to the land, we should expect them to.  For all the radicalism of his ecological insights, Hughes was in some respects quite culturally conservative.  Despite spending his adolescence in a South Yorkshire mining area, for example, he accepted the Laureateship in 1984, the year of a bitterly contested miner’s strike.

Ted Hughes undoubtedly caught the prevailing mood of the long period of industrial and population decline in the upper Calder valley.  There was chronic pollution.  Even I can remember the river Calder running dark blue one day and deep green the next, according to which dyes were being used in one particularly Dickensian establishment.  Smoke from a thicket of chimneys would often have been trapped in the valley.  There was also a long history of hardship.  In the 1970’s, Todmorden was offered one of the Community Development Projects that were set up to study and reverse the effects of industrial decline in communities with high rates of social deprivation, but turned the offer down out of civic pride.  Today we have zero hours contracts, workfare, and a food bank.  The valley has long had a reputation for its high suicide rate, not least due to the lack of light.  Because of the topography, some neighbourhoods don’t see direct sunlight for several months in midwinter.  But all was not gloom and doom.  Far from it.  In part three I want to take a look at resistance and renewal, and reconsider the healing contribution of Remains of Elmet.

B.T 24/11/13, with minor changes 5/2/15.

To be continued …


Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet, 1979 and Elmet, 1994, London, Faber and Faber.

8) Todmorden Chartist Hymn Book, can be found online at From Weaver to Web, Online Visual Archive of Calderdale History.

9) E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, (1963)1968. and Bernard Jennings, ed – Hebden Bridge W.E.A, Pennine Valley, Smith Settle, 1992.

The above is a work in progress.  If you would like to leave a comment below, you can log in or register with WordPress, or send me an e-mail, which I can paste (all or some of) below, by using the form at the bottom of the home page.

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Dear Brian,

I found all your blog post articles very interesting, especially ‘The Shaman of the Tribe’, which I enjoyed reading. I like your approach to Ted’s work and the comments you make about his presentation of the Calder Valley are right but I would argue that his poems are a work of nostalgia and love (that is why they have always moved me) and, as he said, they reflection of his mother’s view of the valley and the life in it – underpinned, I would say, by his own strong feelings for the place, in spite of what he said about these being very mixed feelings. Ted’s geological references are, no doubt, imaginative ‘poetic licence’ .None-the-less, it is good to have a realistic historical and geological perspective from which to judge them …..

best wishes,  Ann Skea.

*Thanks for this Ann.  I’m not sure how realistic my reference to the geology was.  I’ve now read contradictory accounts.  One version is that there were no glaciers in the Upper Calder Valley.  However Bernard Jennings, in Pennine Valley, says that when the main ice sheet (at something like the level of todays ‘tops’) had retreated northwards, it seems that ice still extended southwards down over the Todmorden end of the valley, perhaps at something like the level of what is now the middle, ‘shelf’, section.  When this remnant glacier retreated, and the main glaciers and ice sheets to the north were melting, massive river erosion, augmented by uplift of the land, carved the main central part of the valley where today’s settlements mostly are.  So Ted Hughes’ line about the valley being enlarged by the death struggle of a glacier would only be misleading if taken to imply that the valley, as we see it today, was sculpted by ice.  I’ve re-edited that section accordingly, and will pursue this further.


Notes from the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley – Part 1.

My copy of Remains of Elmet,

Upper Calder Valley, Wikimedia Commons.

Upper Calder Valley, Wikimedia Commons.

And did the countenance Divine / Shine upon these clouded hills / And was Jerusalem builded here / Amongst these dark satanic mills?” William Blake (sung by Chris Wood, to his own tune, as I write).

In 1970, with Crow about to be published, Ted Hughes encouraged the photographer Fay Godwin to make some images of the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire.  He wanted to write about the place where he’d spent the first six years of his life, and where his family lived, and needed some ‘visual triggers’.  Six years later, when he next got in touch, she had been diagnosed with ‘terminal’ cancer.  Hughes was ‘totally generous and supportive’.  He told her to ‘turn the current positive’, and get on with the book.  They worked together on it through 1977.  She appreciated the reciprocal nature of their collaboration.  Both were determined not to illustrate each other’s work.(1)  In an interview Fay Godwin once said ‘the land is a living, breathing, thing, and light changes its character every second of every day.  That’s why I love it so much’.  No wonder they got on.  She survived the cancer and lived until 2005, so perhaps the first thing to say about Remains of Elmet is that some healing intent worked on a personal level.

According to Ann Skea, most critics felt that Remains was an impressive evocation of ‘the bleak, rugged and haunting beauty of the Calder Valley’, but they overlooked its ‘transforming alchemical purpose’.(2) John Billingsley suggests that Remains can be read as a ritual of renewal for the land.(3)  Terry Gifford feels that the Elmet books may have contributed in a small way to the ‘cultural reconstruction of nature and the natural in the Upper Calder Valley’.  Were these poems, then, also an effective contribution towards a collective healing of the cultural and ecological scars of the industrial revolution?  The following notes address these possibilities from various angles, not least by flagging up a range of other accounts of the valley’s historical past, and its twenty first century present.

When Remains of Elmet  was published in 1979 I was working in a co-operative bookshop in Todmorden.  Ted Hughes’ poems and Fay Godwin’s equally memorable monochrome photographs sparked a lot of interest, so we sold piles of copies.  I always felt ambivalent about the book though, to the point of wanting to reply, or at least add some afterthoughts.  This then, is my belated response, not just to Remains of Elmet (and the much revised Elmet), but to critics and biographers who make various claims on the basis of Ted Hughes’ writings.

Having lived in the landscape framed by Fay Godwin’s photographs for the last forty years, I’ve quite often found myself wincing at their descriptions of the Calder valley.  In a highly regarded biography, for example, Diane Middlebrook describes the Valley as ‘a deep gorge running through the Pennine mountains’ (a steep sided valley in the Pennine hills would be closer), locates Mytholmroyd on a river mouth (despite an obscure etymological suggestion, its not), and repeats Hughes’ boyhood exaggeration of Scout Rock, writing that his childhood home ‘stood in the shadow of an enormous cliff’.  In similar vein, an introduction to a set of recordings of Great Poets of the 20th Century, has him ‘born in a Yorkshire coal mining town’.  These are not isolated instances. (see footnote 1).

Simon Armitage observes that ‘the anthropology, religion, natural history, and geography of the area’ provided Ted Hughes with ‘a model for nearly all of his future work’.(4)  Hughes himself referred to the Calder valley as his ‘tuning fork’.  Given that, at its best, Ted Hughes’ poetry offers a transformative vision of the relationship between human culture and Nature, and that he rooted this vision in acute observation, not least of the particularities of place, anyone attempting to evaluate his portrayal of the valley surely needs to engage with some ‘anthropology, religion, natural history, and geography’?

culture/nature in the Upper Calder Valley.

Trees reclaim the site of a water mill in  the Upper Calder Valley.

In Dead Farms, Dead Leaves: Culture as Nature in Remains of Elmet and Elmet, Terry Gifford argues that Ted Hughes’ poetry represents a post-pastoral ‘shift from nature as culture to culture as nature’.  Nature as culture refers to a tendency, fostered by post-structuralism, to treat nature as culturally constructed in language, and either to overlook material realities, or assume that the natural world is now permeated by anthropogenic influence.  Gifford coined the term ‘post-pastoral’ as a way of characterising poetry that ‘listens deeply’ and ‘keeps faith with the source’ -a creative-destructive universe- whilst avoiding both pastoral idealisation and simple anti-pastoral reaction.  Remains of Elmet epitomises this perspective by recognising human culture (in this area, hill farming and the industrial revolution) as an integral part of the creative-destructive cycles of nature.   Ted Hughes grounds his ‘spirituality’ in the fabric of lived experience, and writes as though the non-human world is suffused with agency: nettles venom, chimneys flower, grass agrees, stones tremble, rock sings, light leans, heather thickens nectar, wind interrogates, a snipe draws the new Moon down into her eggs.

I find some of the poems hair-raisingly evocative, some sublime, and some very moving.  They set the bench mark extremely high for any neophyte wanting to evoke my local landscape.  Ted Hughes is, by far, my favourite poet, but in my view his portrayal of Elmet (and what critics conclude from it) becomes quite problematic when his words are taken as an ‘authentic’, representative, or comprehensive account of the Calder valley’s history and geography.

Staups Mill.

Staups Mill, Returning Stone to Earth.

The end of an era?

In The Bioregional Economy Molly Scott-Cato argues that in order to reverse the Great Transformation (described by Polanyi) that severed our ancestral connections with the land, we (in the over-developed West) need to look at what happened where the Industrial Revolution first took hold.  An important key to understanding this can be found in Max Weber’s analysis of the relationship between the Puritan ‘protestant ethic’ and capitalism, and the resulting disenchantment of the world that removed magic from everyday life.(5)  In his introduction to Elmet, Ted Hughes notes that ‘the men who built the chapels were the same who were building the mills’.  He dates the collapse of the ‘local regimes (and combined operation) of Industry and Religion’ to the 1930’s.  In Remains of Elmet  he writes ‘throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die.  Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.’

The 1970’s was certainly a moment of change in the valley, though population decline had been going on since the First World War (the population of Todmorden, for instance, was about 26,000 just before that war, 21,210 in 1935, 16,000 in 1967, and is now about 15,500).  Ted Hughes personifies the emotional tone of this period in the Valley’s history very effectively through the figures of his parents and his uncle Walt.  His map of the upper Calder valley is, however, not surprisingly, Hebden Bridge centric.  In Hebden the loss of industry (mainly fustian manufacture and clothing) was particularly marked.  Planners in the 1970’s encouraged gentrification, and the town is now a commuter and tourist centre specialising in arts and media, though it still has thriving alternative communities.  Elsewhere in the valley, however, the notion that factories disappeared in the 1970’s is misleading.  Although traditional textile industries were replaced by other activities, three decades after Remains was published the level of manufacturing employment in the Upper Calder Valley is still far higher than the national average.(6)

As a postgraduate geographer in the mid-seventies I asked a photographer, who was a friend of a friend, whether I could put some of his images of valley landscapes on display at the polytechnic where I was working.  He was pleased that someone had taken an interest in his work, and lent me some prints which I duly arranged along a rather bleak corridor.  Martin Parr is now a Magnum photographer, who apparently sells prints for an average of £10,000.  I mention this because the work he was doing at the time, not least his affectionate documentation of the austere culture of nonconformist chapels, with evocative names such as Mount Zion Strict, and Particular Baptist Chapel, at what he too calls ‘the end of an era’, should be of considerable interest to Hughes aficionados.(7)

B.T 24/11/13.

Continued in Part 2 …


Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet, 1979 and Elmet, 1994, London, Faber and Faber.

1) Fay Godwin, Ted Hughes and ‘Elmet’, in Nick Gammage, ed. The Epic Poise, A Celebration of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1999.  See also her Land, Heinemann 1985 and Landmarks, Dewi Lewis 2001.

2) John Billingsley, Laureate’s Landscape, Walks around Ted Hughes’ Mytholmroyd, Northern Earth, 2007.

3) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.

4) Simon Armitage The Ascent of Ted Hughes; Conquering the Calder Valley, in Mark Wormald, Neil Roberts and Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes from Cambridge to Collected, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

5) Molly Scott-Cato, the Bioregional Economy: Land, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Routledge/Earthscan 2013.

6) Calderdale Council, Employment and Communities in Calderdale, a Topic Report, 2006.6). Manufacturing employment was then 27% in Todmorden and 41% in the ‘Upper Valley’ area. A figure of 19% is given for Todmorden in a 2010 ward profile. The U.K national average for 2011 was 11% (c.f 27% in 1970).

7) Martin Parr, Non-Conformists, Aperture, 2013. 

Footnote 1) The Pennines rise to about 1,500 feet above sea level either side of the upper Calder Valley,and the valley floor at Todmorden is 423 feet above sea level.  Mytholmroyd is about 75 miles from the Humber estuary.  The etymology describes the meeting of two rivers there.  The upper valley is relatively wide at that point, and if anything cast a shadow over Hughes’ childhood home it was the Mount Zion chapel, which he describes as symbolically blocking his view of the Sun and Moon. (See John Billingsley 2007 and Ted Hughes’s The Rock, for his accounts of his childhood perception of the area).  The family moved to a coal mining area of South Yorkshire when Ted was seven.  One Plath biographer writes: ‘Cambridge was cold, but in Yorkshire she would experience England at it’s chilliest ….(and quoting Hughes) the whole Calder Valley had for centuries been considered a desolate wilderness, a hide-out for criminals’.

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Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe?

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

As well as being a poet of the highest order, Ted Hughes was an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, an environmental campaigner, a pagan animist, and an astrologer.  He is celebrated as an influential eco-poet whose work combines exquisite naturalistic observation with an encyclopedic knowledge of lore, mythology, and esoteric traditions.  He also happens to be an important ancestral presence here in the Calder Valley, where I’ve spent the whole of my adult life.  So I often find myself walking in places he wrote powerfully about.

Ted Hughes’ life story has, of course, been tangled in controversy since the suicides of Sylvia Plath, and then of his subsequent partner, Assia Wevill.  When I worked for a psychiatric survivor led voluntary organisation I had a copy of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Hanging Man’ on the wall behind my desk.  Ted Hughes endorsed her description of her encounter with modernist psychiatry as a grotesque parody of shamanic initiation, refused to medicalise her distress and madness, and supported her through the night terrors of its long aftermath.  I count myself amongst those readers who empathise with both Hughes and Plath, whilst recognising that both were human-all-too-human.  The hubbub of partisan biography shouldn’t distract us from appreciating and critically responding to Ted Hughes’s considerable achievements as an eco-animist poet.(1)  Nor should it prevent us from acknowledging that not all of his enormous ouvre is wonderful, and that there are a few problematic moments.

In her recent book The Bioregional Economy, Molly Scott Cato uses Max Weber’s influential critique of the disenchantment of the world.  After the protestant reformation God became wholly transcendent and otherworldly, and magic was banished from everyday life.  Once the world had been constructed as mechanical it could be rendered as raw material for capitalist exploitation.(2)  Reviewing Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution in 1970, Ted Hughes made much the same argument.  “The fundamental guiding ideas of our Western Civilization … are based on the assumption that the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use.  The creepy crawlies which infest it are devils of dirt and without a soul, also put there for his exclusive profit and use.  By the skin of her teeth woman escaped the same role”.  The mediumistic artist, however, may be able to see ‘the draughty radiant paradise of the animals’, even Pan, ‘the vital, somewhat terrible spirit of natural life, which is new in every second.”  Some of what he wrote in that review, more than forty years ago, could easily be mistaken for the work of a contemporary animist: “…while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor …”.(3)

Not surprisingly, many critics describe Ted Hughes’ work as biocentric, and discuss his belief in ‘the shamanic healing power of poetry for a species alienated from its natural home’.(4)  When Hughes was appointed poet Laureate, his friend Seamus Heaney proclaimed him ‘shaman of the tribe’.  As a young man, Hughes had a visionary dream in which a theriomorphic fox figure came to him.  He recounted this experience in The Thought Fox, and may well have understood it as a threshold call.

The remarkable Cave Birds sequence evokes a male protagonist’s spirit journey through an underworld where he’s confronted by his own past, experiences judgement and dismemberment, marries a female figure who is both his ‘anima’ and the Goddess as Nature, and is eventually reborn.  The extra-ordinary power and beauty of these poems came into focus for me when I read some of them to my friend Peter during the last year of his life.  Terry Gifford regards Cave Birds as an exemplar of post-pastoral poetry, a key feature of which is that it attends, with a sense of awe, to the destructive as well as the creative aspect of Nature.  This perspective contrasts with that of some earlier critics who discuss shamanism in transcendental and dualistic terms.(5).  I’ve been re-reading Ted Hughes’s poems to see whether some of his underlying assumptions, notably his adoption of Jung’s essentialist conception of generic feminine and masculine principles, and his veneration of a Gravesian Goddess, get in the way.  For me, they mostly don’t seem to.

Ted Hughes said that angling connected him with ‘the stuff of the Earth, the whole of life’.(6)  Leonard Scigaj talks about Hughes’s ‘ecological animism’ in relation to the hydrological cycle.(7).  If you read Flesh of Light, The River, or October Salmon, you’ll see why.  Although Hughes may have been influenced by Mircea Eliade, his take on shamanism was always grounded by his fascination with, and respect for, flesh and blood animals, and by his concern with human healing.  His belief in the ‘real summoning force’ of poems, the capacity of carefully charged words to reach out and connect with non-human animals, resonates closely with David Abram’s account of shamanism as a process of relationship with more-than-human worlds.(8)

From my own practice I can confirm that such ‘showings’, as I like to call them, do happen from time to time.  Hughes may have exaggerated the power of poetry per se, but he was certainly not succumbing to the ‘pathetic fallacy’ (falsely imagining that Nature was responding to his inner states).  His own poetry drew upon an exceptional pool of life experience, and was often crafted with specific ‘spiritual’ and/or magical intent.  Ann Skea refers to his shamanic poetic magic, and locates him in the British bardic tradition.(9)  Jeanette Winterson writes: “the wild creature circling the tamed world comes as unknown energy, sensed but not seen.  The bound of the animal out of instinct and into consciousness, its ‘hot stink’, is what makes the poem happen.  For Hughes, poems happen in this meeting/mating between very different measures of energy – the raw feral of the instinctual life, and the channelled potency of consciousness.”(10)

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes’s poems can be difficult, sometimes because of their complexity, sometimes because of their unflinching directness.  Alice Oswald comments “the disruption of comfort, the chance to concentrate utterly on what’s there, to see it in its own way and to say so without disturbing its strangeness is what Hughes’ offers”.(11)  Terry Gifford reports that he’s seen people in the audience faint when February 17th is read.  Transcribed from Ted Hughes’s farming notes, it records an occasion when he had to cut the head from a lamb that had been strangled during birth, in order to save the mother.  I’m reminded of Graham Harvey’s pointed query as to why, when there are so many urban workshops on shamanism, there are none on Pennine shepherding, or its associated religion.(12)

I recently went to an event in Ilkley commemorating the inaugural performance of Cave Birds there in 1975.  Keith Sagar, a literary critic and friend of Ted Hughes, who had been in dialogue with him during the writing of Cave Birds, and who was to have given the talk, had just died, so the event became a fitting tribute to him.

I’d been wondering whether the 1975 performance might have been, in some sense, a shamanic event.  Michael Dawson, who had commissioned Cave Birds, explained that the poems were read by actors who picked the running order ‘randomly’ from a box on the stage.  When a recording was played, I found that their declamatory Thespian style, booming across the years, didn’t work for me.  Something seems to have worked for one audience member at the time though.  Suddenly the reading was interrupted by a protracted and full blooded scream, emitted by a woman at the back of the auditorium, who, we were told, also vomited in the foyer.  The performers on stage assumed this had been a theatrical stunt, so continued as though nothing had happened.

The woman in question, who turned out to be one of Keith Sagar’s adult education pupils, reportedly laughed about it afterwards, and said the ‘involuntary howling’ that came upon her gradually had been triggered by one of the Leonard Baskin bird figures that were being projected on stage.  Ted Hughes later wrote about Baskin’s prints that it was ‘as though a calligraphy had been improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’.  This trace element in his draughtsmanship suggested a psychic proclivity, ‘a passport between worlds usually kept closed to each other’.(13)  It also seems likely that the text of Cave Birds, evoking, as it does, the primal mysteries of birth, embodiment, death, and an afterlife, and our attendant human fears and disorientations, contributed to her reaction.  Strangely, the opening poem in the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds is called The Scream, and ends with a vomited screamThe poem had already been written at the time of the 1975 performance (14), but I’m not sure whether it was read on stage at Ilkley that evening.

Whilst this occurrence undoubtedly attests to the potential power of the poems and images, the event clearly hadn’t been, and almost certainly couldn’t have been, conceived as a shamanic performance (where provision would have been made to assist participants in negotiating their experience).  Following the 1970 publication of Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream, ‘therapeutic’ screaming was in the Zeitgeist at the time.  As someone who used to faint in cinemas, and on one occasion (in the late 60’s) refused an invitation to stay and discuss my needle-phobic reaction with an entire audience of film-goers, I have some sense of the difference between artistic and therapeutic environments, and of the ethical considerations that arise in respect of the latter.  Whatever happened that night in Ilkley, I can vouch for the consciousness-deepening and healing effect of many of Ted Hughes’s poems, when read in conducive circumstances to the right person.  When my friend died last year, I read A Green Mother, over and over.  It had been one his favourite poems.  Often tears came before they’re mentioned in the last line.   I was, of course, reading it from an earth-centred animist viewpoint, for someone who would have been excited to become a flower, a bird, or a worm.

B.T 7/11/13.

Here is a link to the final draft of Shaman of the Tribe, Ted Hughes and Contemporary Animism that appeared in the Journal of the Ted Hughes Society in 2014.

See also a series of posts entitled Notes From the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley.

Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2003.

Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 2007.

Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978, with drawings by Leonard Baskin.

Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes, Gaudete, Cave Birds, and the 1975 Ilkley Festival.

Other Sources:

1) Neil Roberts, The Plath Wars, in Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

2) Molly Scott-Cato, The Bioregional Economy, Earthscan/Routledge, 2013.

3) Ted Hughes, The Environmental Revolution, (1970) in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose,, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

4) Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999.

6) quoted in Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

7) Leonard Scigaj, Ted Hughes, 1991, quoted in Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

8) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage, 1997.

9) Ann Skea Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994, and website.

10) Jeanette Winterson, Foreword to Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, No 5, Ted Hughes, The Guardian / Faber and Faber, 2008.

11) Alice Oswald, Guardian, 3/12/05, quoted by Terry Gifford, ibid.

12) Graham Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, Hurst and Co, 2007.

13) Ted Hughes, The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Note for a Panegyric Ode on Leonard Baskin’s Collected Prints, in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

14) Ann Skea, pers comm.

Peregrine Dreams – 2

Peregrine Falcon. Photo:  Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons CCbySA2.0

Peregrine Falcon. Photo: Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons CCbySA2.0

The Peregrine Falcon is undoubtedly ‘unique in its flight’.  The bird’s stoop, beautifully described by J.A.Baker – ‘he had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames …  diving down from the sun’ (‘February 10th’) – can exceed 150 miles per hour.  Not surprisingly, the bird has been portrayed as celestial and Solar, and associated with transcendence, with rupture or relationship between heavenly radiance and earthly mortality.

I’m not so sure about The Risen. ( the final poem in Ted Hughes’ Cave Birds sequence ).  Here, the rising Falcon is likened to a released convict.  Keith Sagar thinks that Hughes let himself be pulled by the ‘life-denying’ Bardo Thodol in the direction of transcendental imagery he was no longer comfortable with.  He also feels that the Falcon in the poem is incapable of love, ‘inhuman in its totality’.  If this is, as Neil Roberts insists, a poem about a natural creature, its portrayal is haunted by human stories and skewed by mythopoetic concerns.  The bird’s incandescence may be powerfully evoked, but this is an even more partial image than J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.

In various shamanistic traditions The Falcon appears as an assisting spirit.  The Hungarian Turul perches at the top of the world tree.  Likewise, in Norse mythology, all-seeing Vedfolnir perches on the beak of an Eagle at the top of Yggdrasil, and keeps Odin informed about events in all the worlds below.  In Cree tradition the Peregrine nests on a cloud and brings guidance from the Great Spirit.

When Peregrines entered my world in the mid 1990’s I was only dimly aware of this aspect of their cultural reputation.  I was excited by the birds’ arrival, so, not surprisingly, found them entering my dream life.  Before revisiting this, however, I’d like to emphasise the magic of the material ‘real’, and the value of heartfelt birdwatching.

Because Peregrine Falcons breed in the hills hereabouts I have been privileged to witness aspects of their lives that don’t feature in J.A. Baker’s account.  On the 22nd April 1997, for example, I witnessed a spectacle that, for me, utterly dispels the notion that a Falcon might be ‘incapable of love’.  I was crouching down, looking at some Shaggy Ink Cap fungi, when a single loud ringing “keeeek” summoned my attention upwards.  A pair of Peregrines were circling overhead.  What happened next was extraordinarily beautiful.  First the Tiercel (the male bird) mounted a mock attack against the Falcon, who rolled over nonchalantly, extending her formidable talons.  Then they began to climb, very gradually, spiraling round on a thermal updraft, sometimes together, sometimes facing each other across a continuous circle of light and air, until eventually two tiny dots melted into a feint layer of very high cloud and disappeared from view.  From my groundling’s perspective their courtship ceremony felt like a sublime demonstration of the artistry of existence.

On another occasion I have witnessed a Falcon release her prey for two fumbling juveniles to lunge at, then drop like a stone on to the hapless bird, only to repeat the exercise, patiently showing her offspring how they must obtain food.  I’ve also watched youngsters exuberantly slaloming down a rock face, over and over again.  Each of these was probably a once in a lifetime experience.

Some dream encounters were also memorable.  In one dream, I watched a mid-air kill in slow motion.  Then, somehow, the bird had taken a chunk out of the side of a cow.  I was momentarily sickened.  There was a sense of danger.  If the bird had attacked a cow, perhaps it would attack a human next?  In another dream a Peregrine landed on my right arm.  I thought I would need a protective glove, but  the bird somehow fused with my wrist.  I reached out with my other hand and stroked its warm feathery underbelly.  The bird looked into my eyes with a steady gaze.

Dreams like these reflect a process of attunement, empathy, and perhaps dialogue.  But occasionally something a bit stranger happens.  The following  dream occurred before any of the above, about a week after watching a local pair for only the third time.

4.50 a.m. 3rd April 1995 Dream extract: ‘I’m with someone, floating, rocking backwards and forwards, in a nest or basket like structure which moves as if attached to a pendulum, with the motion of a very high bough in the wind.  There is a pair of Peregrines nearby.  We watch a young Peregrine perched on the bough.  Its parent comes and lands beside it, encouraging the fledgling to take its first flight.  Then both of them hop on to the wrist/arm of the person with me, who goes to stroke the adult bird.  I whisper not to do this (realising how sharp the Peregrine’s beak is).  Then both birds fly to a higher bough.  We are told that Peregrines nest on ‘ley lines’ (at this point there’s a brief image of tall timber trunks or posts, in a line).  Then we have to lift ourselves, by becoming weightless, back on to a raft of logs, floating giddily high in the sky, before returning to the normal reality of our bodies.  I somehow manage to do this.

The feeling tone of the dream was exhilarating, exceptionally vivid.

Postscript: That afternoon I felt strongly ‘called out’ by the dream to visit the Peregrines, but was feeling unwell, so reluctantly decided not to set out for the place where they had taken up residence.  Instead I opted for a short walk.  At 4.55 p.m I reached the Standing Stone, and was about to return home, when my attention was caught by a strange, piercing, high pitched, almost sneeze-like call.  A pair of Magpies and a Crow broke into flight, clearly disturbed by something.  Momentarily disoriented, I peered over a dry stone wall, expecting to see an unfamiliar bird amongst the sheep and lambs.  Then I looked up and saw a Peregrine wheeling powerfully in the strong wind.  She circled two or three times above me, before soaring downwind, so fast that her image quickly dissolved.  I was elated.  This was the only time that I’ve seen a Peregrine in that location.  It felt almost as though the bird had come to see me, and lift my spirits.

Footnote: the location was near one of a pair of stones where I had once thought there might be an alignment.  I had tested this and found it not to be the case, but the association was sufficient to make this the only spot locally that might be associated with the idea of ‘ley lines’ (which have not been of much interest to me otherwise).  There is also a line of timber telegraph poles there.  The dream may therefore have offered a garbled clue about what was about to happen almost exactly twelve hours, one half rotation of planet earth, later.  The timing seems to underscore the contrasting but related nature of these two events, one nocturnal, lunar, dream-visionary, otherworldly, the other diurnal, solar, material, this-worldly, and ‘real’.

Whilst reflecting on the above I was interested to read that in falconry the Peregrine can become quite affectionate – one falconer even had a tiercel who would wake him in the morning by nibbling his ear.  My experiences seemed to suggest a communicative, even friendly, species.  An awesome hunter too, of course.  Those eyes, dark globes ringed with gold, resemble two miniature Solar eclipses, an image redolent of death and renewal.

B.T  2/3/13.

For a recording of a Peregrine Falcon’s alarm call, made by Simona Inaudi at Roccabruna, Italy ( Creative Commons NC-ND2.5 ):


Peregrine Dreams – 1.

Horus. Photo by Zolakoma, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0.

Horus. Photo by Zolakoma. Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0.

John Taylor ( no relation ) writes that the Ancient Egyptians ‘more than perhaps any other society, directed a vast amount of their material culture to counteracting death’.  Their literature on death and immortality is ‘the oldest comprehensive expression of human thought about the survival of the individual’.  ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ (originally known as ‘The Spells for Coming Forth by Day’) includes several chapters of recitations designed to help the ba-soul transmigrate into bird form, so that the deceased could ‘go forth by day’ into the sunlit world.  Since this rejuvenation depended upon souls being accepted by the Sun God, many hymns invoke the rising Sun in Falcon form.

One of the Coffin Texts describes his birth.  Isis, whose lineage has been traced back to neolithic Bird Goddess figures, dreams that she is going to give birth to a son who will redeem the patrimony of Atum, and restore the rightful order of the world.  Having secured the protection of the gods, she prepares to give birth.  She then realises that the baby inside her body is a Falcon.  When Horus emerges he immediately flies up and takes control of his destiny.  ‘”Even the most ancient bird could not equal my first flight … no other God could do what I have done.  I have brought the ways of eternity to the twilight of morning.  I am unique in my flight”.  Isis, portrayed as an ornithomorphic female figure, shelters her son, her husband, kings, and their subjects, beneath huge outstretched wings.

Because my connection with birds was forged around and during the mysterious hiatus of bereavement, these archaic stories have considerable appeal.  ( see the-common-kingfisher and birds, liminality, and transformation ).  As an animist, however, my starting place is the living world around me.  I am interested in how the stories we tell reflect and shape relationships between human communities and their other-than-human-neighbours, here and now.

Peregrine Falcons returned to our part of the Pennines in the mid 1990’s, thanks to the concerted efforts of birders and conservationists who protected eyries against (ongoing) persecution.  The history of the species is well known.  Renowned conservationist Derek Ratcliffe led the first national survey of Peregrines in Britain and Ireland in 1961.  He found that their population was crashing, and discovered that DDT was implicated.  His meticulous scientific advocacy – measuring egg shells and taking on corporate vested interests – eventually led to the banning of DDT by the European Union.  Ratcliffe was clearly motivated by a lifetime passion for the bird.  His monograph on the species ends with a resounding call to action: ‘”Those to whom the Peregrine is a source of inspiration and wonder have a special duty of vigilance …  It is their responsibility to ensure that it survives, not just for its scientific, aesthetic, and other value, but in its own right as one of the most spectacular inhabitants of our planet”.

'Wild Peregrines Love the Wind'.  Photo: Mike Baird   (Creative Commons, attribution 2.0)

‘Wild Peregrines Love the Wind’. Photo: Mike Baird.  (Creative Commons, attribution 2.0).

The plight of Peregrines in the early 1960’s galvanised another hugely influential but very different storyteller.  J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is justifiably revered.  It’s an extraordinary paean to a particular landscape as well as a particular bird.  Baker writes ‘my pagan head shall sink into the land and there be purified’.  The original meaning of ‘pagan’ was simply an inhabitant of a particular place, someone who knew an area, and worshiped at its local ancestral sites.  Baker talks about the qualities of directions, and of time – ‘the cold depths at the feet of the solstice’, and and describes moments of exhilaration in spiritual terms – ‘when the hawk is found, all is transfigured, as though the broken columns of a ruined temple had suddenly resumed their ancient splendour’.  He becomes ‘possessed’ by the Peregrine as an icon of the wild.  At one point the bird’s mastery of its element makes him ‘shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement’.  Mostly, however, he adheres to a rigorous routine designed to banish ‘the human taint’ and dispel the bird’s natural fear.  His descriptions of both the Peregrine’s unique powers of flight, and the phenomenology of communion are, I think, unparalleled.  ‘I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light drenched prism of the hawk’s mind … I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk’.

In his prologue to the 2005 edition Robert MacFarlane refers to John Keats’s doctrine of ‘negative capability’, “the ‘poetical’ capacity to empty yourself so totally into another being that you do not merely think like that being but are that being.”  Elsewhere he talks about the intensity of Baker’s language transforming the act of bird watching into something akin to shamanism.  But surely it was the intensity of Baker’s practice that forged the breathtaking luminosity of his prose?  His spell-binding poetic descriptions circumvent the rational mind, transporting the reader into a dream-like reverie, whilst somehow transmitting accurate evocations of wild nature.  Or do they?  There has been much debate about the veracity of The Peregrine.  Mark Cocker acknowledges some possible problems, but concludes that although John Baker fictionalised personal experience, he had ‘an almost forensic concern for truthfulness about his encounters.’

It scarcely seems to matter that the bird he established a rapport with might have been an escaped falconry bird, perhaps a Saker Falcon, or a cross, rather than a Peregrine.  What happened still astonishes, and enables Baker to initiate a discussion of intimacy between humans and other species in the wild.  His animism arguably accounts for the strength of his appeal to many Naturalists.

It may seem churlish to mention reservations about such a wonderful book, but there are some clunky bits, such as the anachronistic references to ‘primitive man’.  This is clearly an image of an empathetic indigenous hunter, but the sociologist in me wants to get back on his soapbox and complain about Baker’s fixation with hunting.  Nowadays we might wonder where all this ‘Man the Hunter’ stuff leaves Man the Nurse, Man the Father, Man the Dancer, and so forth.  More to the point, I’d rather celebrate John Baker as Man the Poet, Man the Conservationist, or Man the Animist.  The Peregrine suffers a related limitation imposed by the accident of geography, or by Baker’s lack of interest in overcoming it.  His local landscape only held over-wintering Falcons, so, sadly, he gives us no descriptions of the domestic aspect of the life of the species.

J.A.Baker’s writing has been compared to the poetry of Ted Hughes.  Both have been likened to shamans.  Baker was obsessed with the hunt, Hughes was an avid angler.  Both were deeply concerned about ecological issues, and human alienation from the natural world.  The protagonist of Hughes’ most intensely shamanic/alchemical poetic sequence Cave Birds, – the soul of Socrates – is accused of a crime (the murder of the Goddess) and undergoes various trials in the underworld, including decomposition, reassembly, and marriage with his female counterpart, before emerging transfigured in Falcon form – as Horus, ‘child and spouse of the Goddess’.  For Anne Skea the Falcon is ‘the ‘liberated’ spiritual gold, the protagonist’s diamond body.  Neil Roberts celebrates the Risen as ‘one of Hughes’ finest expressions of his sense of nature as both immanent and transcendent’.

( to be continued …. ).


John H. Taylor, ed.  Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Journey Through the Afterlife, London, British Museum Press, 2010.

Rundle Clark, R. Symbol and Myth in Ancient Egypt, London, Thames and Hudson 1959/1995.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, London, Arkana 1991.

Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon, 2nd Edition, London, Poyser. 1980/1993.

J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, London, Collins, 1967.

Robert Macfarlane, Introduction, to The Peregrine, New York Review of B00ks, 2005.  Some what Macfarlane had been told, or surmised, later proved to be untrue. (pers comm, 2010).  See also:

Mark Cocker, Introduction, to John Fanshawe, ed. J.A. Baker, The Complete Works, The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries, London, Collins, 2010.

Connor Mark Jamieson, Silent Spring Revisited, London, Bloomsbury, 2012.

Christopher Reid, ed. Letters of Ted Hughes, London, Faber.

Anne Skea,  Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.

Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.