Seamus Heaney: "Death of a Naturalist”

When great writers such as Seamus Heaney die, the sense of loss is ameliorated by what they leave behind.  I returned to “Death of a Naturalist” and remembered how, in an instant, it brought back a child’s innocent wonder at the natural world.  Like him and countless other children I was riveted by “…the warm thick slobber/ Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water/In the shade of the banks …” and collecting,  “jampotfuls of the jellied/specks”. And also like him, I loved blackberry picking expeditions when, “…You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet/ Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it/ Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for/Picking…”  But then suddenly the poems jolt you back to a sense of disappointment and disillusionment -  “ the rat- grey fungus” forming on the cache of blackberries,  the tiny tadpoles turned into “gross-bellied” frogs that unquestioning awe you feel as a child which, as you grow older, becomes clouded  by the realities and uncertainties of life. Perhaps for that reason Heaney, along with so many of our nature poets and writers, have such passionate attachments to the landscapes of their childhoods: the time when all was well with the world.

SeamusHeaneyLowResHeaney loved the countryside of his Northern Irish youth and his poetry is redolent of it.   We are lucky that so many parts of the British Isles have been immortalised by great pastoral writers and  that as a result we might look on particular landscapes with different eyes. Though Wordsworth’s Lake District or Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire moorland may have been relentlessly drummed into us at school – there are myriad less obvious places which for me, have been discovered and cherished through the reading of a writer’s love for them. I have been lucky. I have been affected by the hayfields of Ted Hughes’ North Devon and the tractors’ tall loads, “…swaying towards their barns/ Down the deep lanes,” or the “tussock, minute flies / wind,wings,roots…” of Alice Oswald’s river Dart.  I have felt closer to Thomas Hardy’s Dorset landscape , through reading his poetry and consider him to be one of our best pastoral poets of all, along with the melancholy John Clare who found sometime- solace in his  corners of Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire. He loved the commonplace: the furze, and ling and “oddling thorns” and also moles. It grieved him to see them “hung up as traitors along the fence”.

My landscape journeys haven’t  always been easy: Kathleen Jamie’s sparse images of her beloved North West Scotland, for instance, serve to make me uncomfortably aware of man’s tenuous relationship with nature  but then  Edward Thomas takes me by the hand as it were and leads me back along roads, tracks and paths I thought I already knew.  Every one of us takes something different from what we read – all I am trying to illustrate is how lucky we are to have such a rich tradition of pastoral literature.

I think, like Seamus Heaney,  many of us have a deep love of our childhood landscape which we can never quite retrieve or get back to. But sometimes we can get nearer through words and walking in the writers’ footsteps. It’s wonderful that the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust have just bought Laurie Lee’s beloved woods and secured his landscape in the Slad Valley for future generations. It is still as it was in his boyhood when, in “Cider with Rosie”,  he had his first taste .“ …..never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of the golden valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of plump red apples and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Simon Garbutt

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