There is ruckus in the British press because a poem has appeared on a cairn on the top of a well walked peak in the Lake District.
Before I go further let me make it crystal clear, this is not a defence of breaching property rights. If it’s not yours and you haven’t got permission, you can’t write all over it. Especially with a permanent pen. Simple.
However, I was bemused by the wording used in the press. The summit is said to have been ‘defaced’ and there is a certain amount of disbelief that the graffiti is a ‘obscure’ verse. ( It’s from the 4000 year old Emerald Tables of Thoth apparently. ) Marian Sylvester of the National Trust said:
“It is very strange. Writing your name – if that is the vandal’s name – on something is expected sadly sometimes but to write an ancient poetry verse is odd….There is so much of the verse there they must have taken a copy of it all the way up there – which makes it all even odder.”
Really? Since when did it become impossible for someone to learn a poem by heart? And why is it odder to write a poem than one’s name? And why odd to appreciate an ‘obscure’ poem? Would it have been less ‘disgusting’ if it had been the perpetually quoted Wordsworth’s hosts of daffodils that was chosen?
I was dragged up these fells as a child by my walker parents when all I wanted to do was sit at the bottom, admire the lake view and read a good book. Frankly I would have been delighted to have the reward of getting to the top and finding a poem I had never heard of to read. I am far from sure that the term ‘defaced’ is justified, rather than the alternative ‘impermissibly enhanced’.
I do understand that many of those who like this area prefer it to remain unchanged. One comment I saw on a chat site made that point that ‘the fells are for all not just some self-absorbed poet’. I wonder how one can legitimately define ‘all’ to not include those of us who like to stumble upon poetry and text in unexpected places? And those of us who find handwriting and text beautiful even in its rawest forms.
And actually that cairn is not a part of the natural landscape at all. It was made by people who moved rocks from their natural position to create it.
In 2003 there was another big news event when drawing and marking were found in the caves at Cresswell Crag on the Derbyshire Nottinghamshire border. Some unknown person had drawn animals on to some of the stones and carved into others. Again, a selfish act of expression spoiling the pristine nature for all. Except that that discovery was hailed as of great importance, because the art was dated as being about 15000 years old and the first ‘cave art’ found in the UK. I wonder why markings are wonderful if they remain unseen for years on end but not acceptable when they can be seen at once?
Leaving aside the lack of permission issue, I wonder whether there is in fact scope to be inspired by this to place more temporary writing in natural areas. The National Trust in fact did try this once by letting the National Theatre Wales write a poem onto the rock face in Snowdonia. The paint used was washable in rain although there was a bit of a hoo ha about that experiment too, as it didn’t rain when expected and the sun baked the writing into the rock for a while although it is my understanding that it was eventually removed. Maybe art could be printed on film which can be temporarily stuck to rocks for example. So far I have not seen any criticism of Andy Goldsworth when he changes the environment to make art.
I think the real issue here is why poetry is thought by some to be incompatible with the joy of enjoying nature when in fact so much poetry has been inspired by nature. To me the word of the poem are not at all incompatible with the feeling of wonder, elation, spirituality and transcendence that some people feel when at the top of a peak like Scafell. In case you were wondering the words were:
“O light, all pervading, one with all and all with one, flow thou to me through the channel. Enter thou so that I may be free. Make me one with the all-soul, shining from the blackness of night. Free let me be of all space-time, free from the veil of the night.
“I, a child of light, command: Free from the darkness to be. Formless am I to the light-soul, formless yet shining with light. Know I the bonds of the darkness must shatter and fall before light.”