A cure of the ground—some photos of a wintery fen-edge Cambridgeshire landscape

Once again this morning I cycled over to Oakington to make a pastoral visit and, on the way back, I again took the opportunity to follow a footpath which brings one out onto the guided busway. This footpath goes through a relatively newly planted bit of woodland in which there is a single bench which in recent months I’ve found to be a good place to stop for a few minutes to pause and reflect on the visit and to warm myself up with a flask of tea—for it was a chilly and mostly overcast morning. I’ve taken a few sets of photos as I’ve made my way home from Oakington in the past few months (HERE and HERE and HERE) and offer you another set here.

Some people find this flat, dark, watery fen-edge landscape utterly bleak and depressing and my own (mostly) black and white photos are unlikely to persuade them otherwise! I realise that it takes many years and a certain kind of looking, thinking and dwelling to see that in this landscape there is something truly bracing and life affirming to be found. Of course, I’ve not only lived for twenty years in these parts but I also spent my first two-decades of life in the equally flat, dark and watery landscape of the rural Essex coast on the Tendring Peninsular so I’ve had a lot of practise at it.

But what is the kind of looking, thinking and dwelling that a person can practise and which might help them ‘get’ this landscape? Well, I think one needs to learn to see something that the poet Wallace Stevens saw about how to deal with the bareness of rock. The Rock was also the title he gave to his 1954 collection of late poems and in an excellent book about the philosophical aspects of Stevens's verse called Things merely are (Routledge 2005) the philosopher Simon Critchley wrote:

What seems to be at stake in ‘The Rock’ . . . is the desire to be cured of the desire for poetry—which returns to the theme of therapy and gives it an unexpected twist. This is what Stevens means by ‘a cure of the ground’. That is poetry can endlessly make ‘meanings of the rock’, but if these meanings are nothing when set against the rock, then they are worthless, they are gaudy baubles. The cure, then, is the rock itself, ‘the main of things’ (pp. 83-84).

Especially in winter, the flat fens and fen-edge landscape, like the coastal marsh landscape of my childhood, stands before me as bare as any kind of rock, and the challenge, as both a philosophically inclined theologian and photographer, is to find the cure by learning to live as immediately and fully as one can in the presence of the bare winter fen/rock itself without needing to hide that bareness and starkness with the kind of thought or photography that, in the end, turn out to be be merely gaudy baubles. That’s a hard thing to do and I’m certainly not claiming that I have ever achieved this but—in retrospect anyway—it has always been my (desireless) intention and aim. 

Anyway, with or without success in either the fields of thought or photography walking this landscape thinking and taking photos is for me very much a therapeutic exercise—a veritable cure of the ground.

All photos taken with a Fuji X100F. Just click on a photo of you wish to enlarge it.


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