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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Gruffy Ground

Gruffy Ground. Say it over and over again: gruffy ground. An alliterative landscape, one of those phrases – like Halcyon-haloed days – that sticks in the psyche and never lets it go.
I was back on the Mendips again yesterday, a short stroll after the tempest had clamed, just to get my fix. And once more I was drawn back to Priddy and the lead mines at nearby Charterhouse. I might be a self-confessed practising Catholic – it’s the aesthetics that appeal, and, of course, the Virgin Mary - but I wouldn’t consider myself overtly religious yet these tracts of rough scrub and ancient spoil heaps have become, for me, an intensely sacred landscape.

Gruffy ground at Velvet Bottom - one for the schoolboys to snigger at
Back in the midst of time, when Falco’s ‘Rock me Amadeus' was top of the Hit Parade and I was struggling with a dissertation on landscape and literature for a second-rate Geography degree*, I came across ‘Christ in the Clay Pit, a poem but the Cornish poet Jack Clemo. Now I’m used to an opulent, some would say decadent, church so Clemo’s Calvinism grates a little but his poetry is charged with the erotic and his landscapes are stark and acutely observed. His vision of a suffering Christ set against the wasteland of the abandoned China-clay pit has remained a vivid image, even to this day. It was, undoubtedly, a some deep-rooted memory of this landscape that drew me to the Mendips.
As a child I was taught that to be in the physical presence of Christ only happened to “very special little children” and in exotic locations: at Lourdes, at Fatima, amongst the olive groves on some sun-bleached hillside in Andalucía. To picture him here, on thin turf littered with small black globules of rabbit seemed as authentic as the religious landscapes of my childhood, the Golgotha and Calgary.
So if the myth – and I use the word in most liberal interpretation - of Christ coming to England isn’t grounded in truth – whatever that is – does it really matter? I’m with Jack Clemo on this one:

Why should I find Him here
And not in a church, nor yet
Where Nature heaves a breast like Olivet
Against the stars? I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, wagon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
of Eden's primal infidelity.

Just splintered wood and nails
Were fairest blossoming for Him Who speaks
Where mica-silt outbreaks
Like water from the side of His own clay
In that strange day
When He was pierced.

From Christ in the Clay-Pit by Jack Clemo

Interestingly, I experienced another, quite similar experience in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador some twelve years later. The story of El Mozote can be found here; when I visited for the first time in 1998 it was slowly being resettled by returning refugees following the end of the civil war in 1992.
El Salvador had such a history of bloody violence and brutal oppression that everywhere I went I was seeing crosses; it was a landscape of suffering and crucifixion. But I arrived at lunchtime; the kids were coming out of school and new houses, latrines and a church were all being constructed. The kids ran up to me, asked me to help with their homework, told me their ambitions of getting jobs in the capital: that afternoon the crosses disappeared and I saw instead a landscape as resurrection.

El Mozote today
* With apologies to my fellow Geography and Landscape students at the Dorset Institute of Higher Education, 1983-1986. The truth is that for my dissertation I made up several poems, invented names for their writers and the anthologies in which they appeared. It was my first attempt at playing games with the truth. I got away with it then; I've been doing it ever since. 

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