In the Middle of Nowhere

On a perfect day I felt it was time to give my musings some fresh air. So I went wayfaring, to places just over the horizon seen from my study window. Walk a mile and you reach two villages, separated by common land. It’s an easy stroll or horseback ride from one to the other, or these days by bicycle. I’m pleased that there is still no straightforward route from one to the other by car; pleased that such twenty-first century pressures have been resisted. There is only a web of footpaths, bridleways and short lengths of rough track. Yet amongst the woods and open land you will find houses, small businesses and a pub, the De Spencer Arms. The area is a little Utopia (which means nowhere) and an anachronism in modern England. The first of the villages, Downley, is holding a Festival, the visible signs of which are extraordinary scarecrows, dotted here and there above garden hedges and so forth. I imagine it’s a local competition, but looking through allegorical spectacles I wonder what crows they are aiming to scare. I like to think it is the encroachment of the 21st century on their—I mean our, everyone’s—precious common land.

Ever since my last post, I’ve had Meister Eckhart on my mind; he who was bound by the rules of his Catholic order and the state of 13th century European civilization, and yet cut through them cleanly, just escaping being tagged a heretic. He also cut through all the Popish & theological encumbrances of the time to reach a timeless essence, wherein lies freedom and an ecstatic way of being. Most of his writings are in the form of sermons, challenging but exciting. Then as now, you would have had to decide whether the price was worth paying for the great adventure that his words inspire. Not everyone could follow. Can I? It is probably easier today, for more people, to achieve the kind of detachment he advocates, to discover deep within ourselves that great connecting principle which unites the whole of creation, which he orthodoxly calls God. (I believe that the path and goal he delineates is identical to those pointed to by the god-free discipline known as Zen. For while there may be innumerable contradictory notions dreamed up by our fecund minds, when you approach the essence, you reach a dimensionless point where truth must surely be singular.)

I’m in no position to add further preaching to that of Meister Eckhart OP, that most eminent member of the Dominican Order of Preachers. But I carried him in my mind, through Downley and Naphill. In that web of footpaths it is easy to have no agenda—that’s my modern expression for “detachment”. No desire, no regret, no guilt, no indebtedness, no resentment, no fear. I am not pure in these matters, but the shortfall gives me no care or anxiety. It is enough to feel blessed and give thanks for one’s life, one’s work in progress.

I pass a parked not-very-modern tractor with attachments for digging and bulldozing, painted in brown livery and emblazoned “Downley Common Preservation Society”. I note the absence of licence plates, reflecting its domicile in these hallowed Commons, which lack public roads. In this spot, I’m surrounded by paddocks, orchards, the sound of cocks crowing, dilapidated sheds, aromas of horse-dung and creosote. I reach the end of this short drivable length of rough track, almost blocked by a small horsebox, parked with a wheel-lock, and continue on a narrower path through the woods.

I haven’t consciously renounced anything. Advancing age achieves that for you naturally. Knowing what to expect in the future, you embrace gladly that which still remains. I was given a few months’ work to do at home. After some research I worked out I could do it with the aid of Microsoft Visual Studio 2013. I visualized clearly how to proceed, saw the end result in my mind’s eye. But—as I ruefully wrote to my client—“I felt like a passenger trying to take over the controls in an airliner cockpit, after the sudden death of the pilot. One hopes to learn by repetition but I could never manage to retrace my own footsteps. The screen never looked the same twice. It must be a combination of age and never having had enough aptitude even when young.” Realizations like this are salutary and bracing, healthier for the soul than ambition.

As I proceed from Downley to Naphill, aromas from verdure warmed in the sun evoke memories of long summers between ’48 and ’54, boarding at a small prep school in rural Sussex. I was already then what I am now, drawn to reading, day-dreaming, aloof wanderings in the countryside. I rediscover that child. I accept being the result of that combination of nature and nurture, or whatever it is that shakes the dice on our behalf, deals out our particular hand from the deck of cards. You play with what you’re given. Now, what shall I do with the time I’ve saved by not taking on that project?

Visual Studio 2013 is a fine and versatile toolbox, but then so are the words and grammar of the English language, wherein each sentence can be a handcrafted original; each paragraph an intricate construction, potentially capable of conveying “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest”. I am content to return to the same topics, year after year, till I’ve managed to say the thing I feel, and point to the thing which cannot be said. Dipping into Eckhart, I see how useful is the word “God”, so long as it’s trimmed of unworthy usages, dogmas and assertions we don’t actually know from experience. If there is to be religion, if it is not to be trampled by ignorance and extremism, let it at least remain a shelter and refuge wherein a person may stay safe, and find God, and others of like mind. Ditch the rest by all means, and I’ll be grateful, but not that.

I was just wondering whether Downley Common merges into Naphill Common, and if so where, when a display hove into view, with a map and accompanying text (click on the illustration at right for an enlargement):

Near this point Naphill and Downley Commons run into one another and both reward exploration. While much of Downley Common is still grassland with shrubs and heathland flowers, Naphill Common has an abundance of ancient trees, glades and ponds, the mysterious ‘Clumps’, a Romano-British farmstead and many historic banks and ditches interlaced by a network of footpaths and bridleways.

These Commons are ancient. Queen Elizabeth I crossed them in 1566 on her way to Hughenden. Drovers grazed and watered their stock on their way from the West to London. Pits show where clay has been dug for brick-making. There are 18th and 19th century sawpits. There are tank tracks from World War II.

In short, these Commons, like all of creation, are a palimpsest repeatedly inscribed by time. I pay homage to those who acknowledge and preserve these marks from the past, as a minor dissent from the tyranny of consumerism that makes modern life such a strenuous race, merely to stand still.

I came back in the early evening to take some photos, and found that the local youth were congregating there, boys and girls with bicycles and dogs. A small fire was lit, and the greenwoods rang with barking and merry laughter as in the mythical Sherwood Forest. To those who labour to preserve these commons, Robin of Loxley wasn’t so long ago, just a few centuries before Good Queen Bess.

The best moment for me that day is hard to describe: a moment when I didn’t know where I was. When you don’t take a map along, and there’s nowhere else you have to be, that is Utopia, the middle of nowhere. And it’s good enough. More than. Your presence turns “Nowhere” into somewhere, because you are truly “someone” when you are mainly occupied just being.

Eckhart puts it better, not because he uses the word God a great deal, but because he is a Meister, & I’m a beginner.


My horizon


Le De Spencers Arms


Naphill Common


path through summer wilderness


then suddenly a manicured lawn


Maid Marian & friend go . . .


. . . to see the Merry Men
(click to view)


The scarecrow couple


scarecrow or tutelary goddess


Visitor’s map & guide


cricket & tennis scarecrow


Neighbourhood Watch scarecrow


Click to download pdf copy of book
(tr. Claud Field, 1909)

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12 thoughts on “In the Middle of Nowhere

  1. Thank you for this Vincent. I loved it all, particularly the way you seemed to skip from one subject to another and then back again. And then you finished on that wonderful and courageous man, the Meister himself. Somehow, your words flowed around and through me, soothing and supporting. That answered a need the depth of which I still have not fathomed.

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  2. Thanks, Tom. I've edited it slightly since your comment, examining it again with reader's eyes, so to speak.

    “Answered a need the depth of which I still have not fathomed”—yes that describes exactly what Eckhart does for me, his meanings resonating long after I read his words; as a piece of music one has replayed many times takes residence within us and goes on playing soundlessly.

    Sometimes an answer provokes the question, exposes the need. Did you ever encounter a little book called “Mister God, this is Anna”? This six-year-old theologian/scientist/mathematician plays a game with her grown-up friend Fynn, on the lines of “What's the question to this answer?” There are many possible questions to each answer, in fact.

    And as the song says, “There are more questions than answers”.

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  3. I wish Meister Eckhart was still alive so you could meet him. I can only imagine all the wonderful chats you would share, as you walked together, among those ancient trees, with red-tail kites soaring overhead.
    Kind of makes me wish time travel was possible so I could smile at the both of you, as you stroll by.

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  4. Nice thought and something to ponder about, Cindy. Eckhart and I might not get on at all. Some things he says are quite opposite to how I see them, for example this:

    “Every man, who loves God, only uses his outer senses so far as absolutely necessary; he takes care that they do not drag him down to the level of the beasts, as they do some who might rather be termed beasts than men.”

    To me, focus on the outer senses, when out of doors, is a remedy against the barren machinations of intellect. I’ve never felt at risk of being “dragged down to the level of the beasts”.On the contrary, I have a high respect for our fellow-creatures, apart from the horrific behaviour of certain insects and other arthropods. Loving the creation, as perceived in nature and man, and the depths of my own consciousness, is the only way to God that I know.

    In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, I think he has something to teach me. Contact with his writings is all I ask! But I’m grateful to you for the thought experiment.

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  5. I've been looking for Loren Eisley, but could only find his work in expensive editions from the States. But when I look for Loren Eiseley, there are used editions some hardback costing about a penny, which I can ship from the States via Amazon.co.uk without paying the international postage. From what I read of Loren already, he would be an ideal companion on outdoor trips. Thanks for the introduction!

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  6. I forgot to mention that since first publishing the above post I've put up a short selection of Eckhart's sermons in pdf. Just click on his picture.

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  7. This is a 'thought experiment' using Jung's four functions. It can be done in various situations. I present this as a explanation for Eckhart's stated attitude toward using the senses in your comment to Cindy. But I am attracted to your posts because you respond to your total environment intuitively.
    ______________
    Sensation – describe only by sense data – size, color, temperature, smell, taste, sound:

    'The sky was blue, the trees were big, the flower was fragrant.'
    ______________
    Emotion – express only the emotion or value judgement which the scene produces in you:

    'I felt insecure because of the strange surroundings.'
    _____________
    Reason – put the scene into a rational framework, explain what is going on as a part of a reasoning pattern:

    'I found myself in a second growth forest where the pines were being replaced by deciduous trees.'
    ____________
    Intuition – look for relationships which allow you to experience the whole:

    'Nothing was isolated, everything invited me to participate in the kaleidoscope of which I am a part.'

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  8. I have a confession to make, that the portrait on my edition of sermons is not of Eckhart at all. I realized that it could not be a portrait from the life because it is done in a Renaissance style, a hundred years after Eckhart's death. Now I see that the portrait in fact is of someone else entirely, as a reproduction in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giovanni_Bellini_025.jpg is attributed clearly as follows:

    Portrait of Fra Theodoro da Urbino, 1515 Tempera on panel, 24 3/4 x 19 3/8 inches (63 x 49.5 cm) National Gallery, London

    The artist was Giovanni Bellini (or his workshop).

    Many sites on Google say that it's a portrait of Meister Eckhart, This leaves me with a dilemma. Should I perpetuate the falsehood, or make a new cover? I was set on doing the honest thing, until I looked up Fra Theodoro da Urbino, and discovered that he has no other claim to fame but this portrait, in which he sat as an allegorical model for the founder of the Dominican Order, St Dominic himself. I quote from a book Wisdom for Life edited by Michael Kelly, Mark A. O'Brien:

    “This type of portrait, where the sitter presents him or herself under the guise of a saint or a famed character from history or mythology, was not uncommon in the Renaissance. Such an image is known as an allegorical or a disguised portrait. Subjects would choose to identify themselves with a famed model from the real or imagined past as a way of declaring a desire to model one’s behaviour on a virtuous exemplar. Saints like Mary Magdalen, Agnes or the Roman matron Lucretia inspired emulation amongst women. Religious might choose to present themselves with the attributes of a saint of his or her order. Giovanni Bellini painted a friar with the attributes of St Dominic in his portrait of Fra Teodoro da Urbino as St Dominic.
    . . .
    “In most examples of these allegorical portraits the allusion to the exemplar was indicated through the inclusion of attributes or
    emblems. Thus Bellini’s Fra Teodoro da Urbino as St Dominic included a lily and a book, that saint’s identifying attributes.”

    I shall leave the cover as it is for now but put a note inside confessing all. Conscience salved.

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  9. Ellie, you remind me again of Theodore Faithfull who taught me about the Fourfold Nature of Man, and attributed it to William Blake.

    Your timely intervention mediates between the two positions, pro- and anti-sensuality by suggesting that when the four functions are together present they give balance to man so that no harm is done.

    And now writing this, I am put in mind of book-length essay I much admire: In Defence of Sensuality. by John Cowper Powys. He dedicates it to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His praise is for what he calls the ichthyosaurus-ego, something which he feels is repressed in most of us. I'm not sure where it fits in the four-fold structure but he uses it to examine the hypocrisies and self-deceptions that plague the modern human soul, in a kind of Nietzschean revaluation of all values. But having just written this, I have doubts that I can express his position with any reliability in one paragraph, without rereading his entire book, which I'm certainly not ready to do. Not till December at least when it gets dark at four in the afternoon, and one is glad to have an indoor hearth and bookshelves full of old friends one has not listened to for years.

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  10. Middle of nowhere??? and you describe this? Heh. Ya wanna live where i live.
    (PS. just making an irrelevant comment to let you know that remain alive, and more or less physically and mentally intact …heh).

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  11. That you remain alive, at a satisfactory level of intactness, is never irrelevant to me, Davo, & the uncounted myriads of readers of this blog & your own. I hear on the radio that some man with money to spare has bought a ticket to go into space, just to look out the window and see this little globe whose surface we cling to through no effort of our own, gravity doing all the hard work, which hangs in the middle of — creation? — nowhere?

    The main word to me was “middle”. No matter that from a certain point of view your place is at the very edge of the bush and civilization: on a dotted line which marks their common boundary. You and I are privileged to have ringside seats at the very middle of it all, where the best thing is happening. Or so it felt in a particular moment which I was feebly attempting to describe.

    It's a place where no map can take you.

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