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Landscape and Literature, Landscape and Music

A very successful Haggs Farm Preservation Society AGM on zoom was followed by an absorbing talk from Alan Wilson and Malcolm Gray about their collaboration on the cantata ‘The Voice of Nethermere’.

Increasingly our recent discussions around Lawrence have been about how to attract new audiences to his work and how to remind those who know him of his relevance today. Much of the world Lawrence writes about is now history, but many of his ideas still speak to us now. And so Alan and Malcolm’s rediscovery of The White Peacock, a novel often seen as rather dated, through an ecocritical lens, was challenging and inspiring. Their cantata, which views the novel as Lawrence’s response to the destruction of the natural world around him, highlights his vital importance to a world in climate crisis.

Alan began the talk by reflecting that amidst all the fear and uncertainty, one benefit of lockdown appears to have been its positive impact on the environment, and how the lack of traffic, closed shops, quiet streets and enforced time at home has made us take more notice of our local area and the natural world all around us. Of course artists have always been inspired by nature, and Malcolm and Alan went on to explore how writers and musicians respectively take landscape as their influence. Alan reminded us of musical pieces such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, Debussy’s La Mer, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, where one can imagine oneself walking through Felley Woods, Grieg’s Morning Mood from Peer Gynt and Vivaldi’s seasons. Malcolm reminded us of the writers who have recreated their landscapes so vividly that we can’t picture them anywhere else: Wordsworth in the Lake District, Hardy in Wessex, the Brontes in the Yorkshire moors, Laurie Lee in Gloucestershire and of course Lawrence who is, amongst many other things, a landscape writer recreating Eastwood and its surrounding area again and again in his work, but also conjuring up Cornwall, Sicily, Australia and New Mexico as he travelled.

For many writers nature provides a place of refuge and escape, but ecocritics have pointed out that too often their descriptions are idealised and this ‘comfortable escapism in nature’ ignores both the hard labour that goes into working the land, as well as the ecological destruction which is taking place all around us. Lawrence’s love of the countryside started as an escape from Eastwood through his visits to the Chambers at Haggs Farm, and his evocative, vivid descriptions of nature make therapeutic reading, but coming from a working class mining community and seeing the Chambers struggle to make Haggs Farm financially viable, his descriptions of the landscape more often than not come from the viewpoint of those working it, and he never seeks to hide his ecological concerns. But in fact his ideas are more profound than that, as Terry Gifford in his study of nature poetry ‘Green Voices’ suggests, Lawrence seeks to break down the aesthetic distance implied by a notion of Nature to reach a deeper ‘pagan relationship with our planet and its ecosystem as a living exchange of substance.’

And so we come to Alan and Malcolm’s collaboration on The Voice of Nethermere, which aimed to rediscover ‘The White Peacock’ and create an ecological allegory pertinent to today’s environmental concerns. Alan thanked Ruth Hall who, along with Rosemary Howard, collected all the references to flowers and plants and first highlighted to Alan and Malcolm the vital role of the natural landscape in this novel as a backdrop to the tragic relationship of George and Lettie. He went on to explain the idea of The White Peacock as an allegory, where Nethermere is the garden of Eden and Lettie and George are Adam and Eve; in failing to listen to the voice of the natural world they become separated from the beauty of Nethermere, their relationship is broken and the world of Nethermere is contaminated and eventually destroyed. Alan and Malcolm saw that this idea had immense dramatic possibility and so the cantata proves with its three sections beginning with an upbeat celebration of the Garden of Eden, moving into a dramatic dream sequence which reveals to George that he must be with Lettie followed by her rejection of him, and ending with a lamentation of all that has been lost and a warning of the need to protect our planet.

Malcolm concluded by encouraging us to read three recent works which explore our connection with the natural world: Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, Christopher Neve’s Unquiet Landscape, and Sue Macdonald’s Vesper Flight.

An inspirational talk, like Lawrence, looking forwards as well as backwards, encouraging us to listen, read, and reconsider our role in the landscape and on planet earth.

Kate Foster

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