Field Notes in search of my subject PART I – ‘The Clearing’


“In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting… Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.” Martin Heidegger (1935) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in Poetry, Language, Thought.

At the heart of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of being was his notion of the lichtung or clearing, an opening through which entities other than ourselves can emerge out of hiddenness, or are made visible by a bringing into the light.

The clearing is the place or site where un-concealment occurs.

On the face of it, the lichtung is a compelling image as it constitutes a ready-mix world of the material and the personal, the natural and the cultural waiting to be accessed and experienced and explored.

Lichtung is at once a material space and a field of consciousness. It stands not only for the world of experience that we all share (more than one person can enter the clearing) but also for that of the individual (the clearing that is opened up by a human being with a unique stance, way of being, and slant upon the world), the two being intermeshed and inseparable in practice. As a social and cultural field, the clearing contains other people. As a field of action, it also contains the tools and instruments and technologies that human beings use, the practical relations and affordances that bind us to the world of things.

It’s a seductive metaphor but takes us only so far, as human experience is not a static field, in the same way that a clearing is. It’s dynamic and fluid. We not only passively discover what passes through the clearing; we also posit, explore, investigate, imagine; our shifting fields of awareness expand and contract rather than remain constant. We bring ever more experiences and readings of experiences into the light and inevitably send others back into the darkness of unconscious memory. And, while we may inhabit clearings that are already made – cultural spaces and ways of seeing and doing that are centuries old – we also open up their own fields of awareness and experience out of the world. We transform – and are transformed by – the space we ourselves have ‘cleared’. Our clearing is active and transformative rather than passive and unchanging.

I had previously thought that the underlying motivations behind the work shared on this website – the prose, the poetry, the photographs and paintings – were a response to a need to seek some means of accessing a deeper understanding of place, and through that understanding begin to make sense of roots and history and belonging. However, the more I read, the more I write or paint, the more I come to see that there’s also something else going on.

There’s a narrative. A story. A subject. It’s my expression of the clearing.

It can be given voice by excavating away, the layers of knowledge and beliefs that accumulated within and upon it.

Over time I’ve found myself travelling vertically. More specifically I’ve been mining. Delving below the superficial integrity of the surface to place. And then on, through place to genealogy and deltiology, via nature writing, modern biography and a predictable psychogeographically-biased pantheon that includes Alan Garner, Phil Smith, Nick Papadimitriou, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Tim Robinson, Tim Dee, Rob Cowen, Rebecca Solnit, Richard Skelton, Geoff Nicholson, Iain Sinclair, W. G. Sebald, Peter Ackroyd, William Least Heat-Moon, Dexter Petley, Chris Packham, Helen Macdonald et al (but also Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series or the Peak Noir detective series by Stephen Booth, through children’s books and on through the novels of Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Graham Swift, John Berger, John Burnside and David Pearce to the diaries of Derek Jarman and the poetry of R.F. Langley, Michael Haslam, Tom Rawarth, Ken Smith, Jacob Polley, Peter Riley, Roy Fisher, R.S. Thomas, Tomas Tranströmer, Ted Hughes, John Clare and so on and so on…

It’s an excavation or journey of discovery underland that’s taught me that we have portable roots, and that:

…we’re alone mostly, that we’re temporary and only we think we’re important, that we’re mostly accidental and at best incidental to where we are, we may travel away from our roots in trying to discover them, that the discovery of pattern, and of what endures in nature is reassuring and humbling. Ken Smith You Again, Last Poems & Other Words p54

I’ve learned that what’s important to me is solitude and its places, a few ‘thin’ objects, my life’s images, the woman I married, three children and their lives.

I’ve learned that creativity is to do with seeking a means of cherishing fleeting moments of life and sharing our experiences with others. We can’t simply assign value anywhere or to anything, value can only come through the work or the telling. I need to scratch the itch of creativity by having a go, by learning new ways of trying to set the images of my life’s story together, for their own sake, a dialogue between things.

If we are indeed the sum of all our stories and defined by their telling and re-telling. I now think I know what it is I’m seeking in my need to create, manipulate, articulate and make meaning. It has specificity/time/place/shape and it’s only moments long. It’s a response to my first remembered story a story that goes something like this:

A warmed limestone wall, early Summer of 1965, at the point where the lane called Common Wood leaves St. John’s Road, along Matlock Dale, at a place called Artist’s Corner.

A few limestone cottages cling to a steep wooded hillside. There’s a small church in the woods and a busy road snakes with the river.

I’m in mum’s arms. She is hairspray. Violets. A cigarette. I’m perhaps 18 months old as my sister’s not yet born. Mum is pregnant. Dad stands protectively close. He wears a white shirt with woven tie.

Another couple, neighbours, row nearby. A bucket of water is thrown. A noisy kerfuffle along the lane, their raised voices entered our open front door and brought my parents outside.

The flank of Masson hillside rises sharply behind the houses. Steep narrow gardens. Gritstone steps pitch down to the Dale Road below. It’s hot. The colours – the greens of the trees – are vivid

The ‘domestic’ peters out. Two soaked. Too soaked.

The small crowd that’d gathered, reluctant to return indoors, savour a moment in the sunshine at the end of the lane. A lazy hum of gossip. I’m warm, safe, sleepy.

I’m drawn to a flash of red through a gap between the rooftops of the houses below.

Fire engines.


Replenishing their tanks from the river. They unfurl the hoses and shoot arcs of water across the meadows. Rainbows fall.

A further flash. A train on the embankment beyond the fire engines and the river and above the meadows.

Sunlight. Hillside. Woodland. Rainbows. Steam and water, water, water.

Warmth. Security.

What I’m after is in that story. Is then.

I’m coming to realise that my creative output – mark&word or The Work  is in response to The Moment and a need to a return to the meaning of that long hot summer, that moment of contained completeness, of unbroken love; Work that helps return me to passion and optimism; to stability, certainty, contentment, containment and family; I want to know more of that time before loss, before hurt or loneliness or stress. In my valley, at home, in place, & belonging.

The Work is a creative project, it’s likely to be lifelong, and it’s called The Undersong.

What I seek is to understand the pattern of light, emotion and language around that moment. I’m striving to re-experience and express, in different forms, what was felt in my first story, at that Moment. But, as each year passes (and it’s now over fifty years ago) the clarity fades and is overlain by other memories, image over image, layer after layer, blurring the edges, an erasure until only the faintest of outlines remain.

I know I’ve long since corrupted The Moment with invention. What was is one thing, and all but irrecoverable; what I can remember is another, and both are separate from each other as each is from what I want now, to return to the womb of that memory, the emotions, feelings, a desire that can, at best, only be achieved as a palimpsest of then.

I’m seeking a form and a voice to open up the space sufficient to make fiction. Grown older, I can no longer tell what’s changed in the world and what’s changed in me or how much of my recall is biased or plain untrue. Yet my perceptions of the start of my story, however slippery are held dear, they’re all I have, my bulwark against the silence and the dark.

The product of milliner, ganger, boatman, postman, inspector of the night mail, gunner, messenger boy, servant, clerk to the works, carpenter and foreman I’m no artist or teacher or writer. I’m Mr. Magpie the story-thief. At times a maker too. A bricoleur, a bodger, a do-it-myselfer, forever clumsily assembling the broken bits of my bits of the world into new shapes. Oddments. A leap-frogging figure. A walker. Or list maker, on the lookout for hidden links, the turns-in-the-road, recycling phrases and thoughts, building bridges, sometimes fences, walls, arches or gates. And crossing borders.

Writing and painting are, for me, a practical means of uncovering roots, the past[s] behind the present I find myself in.

I’m not good at the writing or the painting, not particularly original or talented, but it matters not one jot when you’ve got the itch you have little choice but to scratch it, so I write what I can in the best way I can, I put pencil, pen or brush to paper, board or canvas, I make my mark and tell my story. We all have a story to tell and this is my attempt to share my telling.

“The moments return, my life a vague construction of them, made of points towards which everything tends and beyond which everything is altered.” Ken Smith from Dreaming of Horses in A Book of Chinese Whispers


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