Anne Collett | 1 February 2017
In the break between sessions in 2016 I squeezed in an 18 day walk in the UK – 450km up and down the Pennines. I told my Romantics students who had enrolled for Victorians in the next session, that if I didn’t make it back in time for the first lecture, it was surely because I had disappeared into a bog. The Pennines are the ‘mountain’ chain that runs up the spine of England – starting level with Manchester and up to the Scottish border. The walk is usually done south to north (supposedly with back to the prevailing winds). It’s very very wet and about as wild as it gets in England – far far from the madding crowd – and I love it! The lonelier, the wilder, the boggier, the foggier, the more I like it. Of course the wet and cold and even falling into the bog is fun, only because I can look forward to a hot shower, a pint and a meal at the local pub, and a comfy bed at day’s end – no wild camping for me.
Most people are puzzled by my love affair with bogs (and sheep) – less puzzled by the sheep than the bogs; but I love bogs because they are so intractable, so uncivilizable – but they are being badly eroded by so much human and animal traffic (walkers, fell-runners, bikers, sheep, a few wild goats, rabbits…). They are also fascinating because the black peaty pools are a haven for a myriad of plant and mini-animal life, and they are beautiful because these pools are a shiny black mirror for the changing colours and shapes of sky and cloud, of wind ripple, mist and fog. And then I love the layering of history in bogs – it’s like poetry – so much cultural and natural change is recorded in the bog as it is in poetry. The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, famously speaks about writing poetry as a kind of digging, and many of his bog poems are written in a state of wonder and awe:
The ground itself is kind, black butter Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. … Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless. (from ‘Bogland’)
It is this sense of bottomlessness, a kind of infinite depth – cultural, historical, geological – that has me entranced. If you read some Heaney you’ll see what I mean; or P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1965), the book upon which Heaney based many of his bog poems. The black and white photographs and the text that describes the discovered ‘bog people’ are strangely peaceful and disturbing – a kind of ‘terrible beauty’ (W.B. Yeats) is revealed:
An early spring day – 8 May, 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjaeldskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.
The dead man who lay there was two thousand years old. (19)
But Glob is forced to reassess his interpretation of gentle rest, peace and silent prayer when a lump of peat is removed from beside the man’s head:
This disclosed a rope, made of two leather thongs twisted together, which encircled the neck in a noose drawn tight into the throat and coiled like a snake over the shoulder and down across the back. After this discovery the wrinkled forehead and set mouth seemed to take on a look of affliction. (20)*
Glob writes with wonderful honesty, making apparent the human tendency to make much of little, to fill in gaps of knowledge with imagination. His record of feeling projected upon the bog man, points to the dangers of poeticising and the importance of attempting to remain anchored to a material reality that is often treacherous ground. My recent ‘bog hopping’ across the Pennines cautioned me against too ready an assumption of surety and the need to constantly rethink, reassess, retune my relationship with a world of bog in which I was an interloper, a stranger in a strange world. What I believed to be firm ground often gave way beneath my weight. All systems of negotiation proved fallible, my bog-hopping confidence deflated by a misjudged step. The bog claimed its woman but I survived to tell the tale, a wetter and wiser woman. Now I truly understand the phrase ‘that sinking feeling’! (And my next walk? Long service leave beckons: 14 days along Offa’s Dike in Wales – I hope there’s lots of bog.)
*This is the description upon which Heaney based his poem, ‘The Tollund Man’.
P.V. Glob . The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.
Seamus Heaney. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.
W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’ in Selected Poems. London: Pan Books, 1990.