Trail-following or trail-making?

TC Lethbridge (1901-1971) (source)
This week I want to bring before you two related, interesting but very strange tales centering upon a controversial local archeologist and then to let them generate a critical question relevant to our freethinking religious tradition.

The man concerned was Thomas Charles Lethbridge (23 March 1901 – 30 September 1971) better known as TC Lethbridge. He was a specialist in Anglo-Saxon archaeology and served as honorary Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology from 1923 to 1957. Despite this honour, as the British historian Ronald Hutton puts it, Lethbridge “never really rose above that of an unusually lively local antiquary” and that “in part this was his choice” as “he prided himself upon his character of an upper-class dilettante, with a private income and a contempt for professionalism in all fields” (Hutton, Ronald: Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, OUP, 1999, p.274).

Hutton continues:

“When the University became more the preserve of salaried scholars after World War Two, [Lethbridge] was increasingly bored and irritable, referring to ‘academic trade-unionism’. The breach came in 1957, when other archeologists refused to accept his claim to have discovered a set of prehistoric hill figures at Wandlebury Camp, near Cambridge. He resigned his post and devoted the rest of his life to writing about ancient religion and psychic phenomena, producing nine books on these topics before his death in 1971” (ibid., p.274).   

I first became aware of Lethbridge as a teenager when in a second-hand bookshop I accidentally and excitedly stumbled across his 1957 volume called Gogmagog—The Buried Gods in which he describes his hunt for, and claimed discovery of, those aforementioned hill figures — a Celtic warrior with a sword and shield, a goddess and her horse, and a sun god.

Lethbridge's conjectured hill figures
The highly unusual and unorthodox and problematic way he “uncovered” these gods needs be told. Having decided where he should look on the Wandlebury site (a decision itself somewhat problematically arrived at) he took hold of a heavy, metal sounding bar and began to ram it into the ground thousands of times across the site. He decided that if it went in deeply this indicated a cut into the turf and if it only went in a very short way it indicated an uncut area. To mark where he thought he had found cuts he inserted a wooden stick and it was from this random morass of sticks that he constructed the greater part of the image you have before you here.

The book — and particularly this image — captured many people’s imaginations then as now (including my own of course) and, although both his archaeological methods and “findings” have been shown to be completely spurious (he was, it seems, most likely discovering simply water-cut ice-age features) I confess that, to this day, I’m still not able to walk past the site of his excavations without experiencing a visceral remembrance of the excitement and wonder I felt when I first encountered his extraordinary, imaginative construct. There is no doubt that Lethbridge could write a terrific yarn.

Lethbridge’s “discovery” which really turns out to be the “creation” of the Wandlebury Hill figures is, then, my first story. Let’s now turn to my second.

A sample page from "The Lethbridge Report"
Recently, I had the pleasure briefly to engage in a brief correspondence with someone who, like me, has a long-standing interest in the British landscape and the various ways it has been interpreted over the centuries. Lethbridge came up at one point in our conversation and my correspondent kindly let me know of the existence of a wartime document called “Observations upon Unusual Phenomena noted in the Cambridge District, June-August, 1940” now known simply as “The Lethbridge Report”, writing to me that in it he thought it offered “a fascinating glimpse into TC Lethbridge's paranoid trail-following (trail-making) during WWII.”

I knew nothing about Lethbridge’s report so I eagerly tracked down my own copy recently made available by the artist Tim Brennan in connection with some work he has been doing for the “Mass Observation” Archive where the Lethbridge Report has ended up.      

It appears that whilst wandering around the Cambridgeshire landscape at the start of WWII, presumably very much in his  archeologist mode, Lethbridge got it into his head that along the way he was also finding evidence of a German spy-network that was preparing for the imminent invasion of Britain. Deeply concerned by this he began to prepare a detailed and strange report which was sent to the War Department who, shortly afterwards, ensured that security was increased around a number of local munitions dumps towards which Lethbridge claimed many of the signs seemed to be pointing. In the book here is how Andrew Biswell (the biographer of Anthony Burgess) introduces the document to us in Brennan's book:

A sample page from "The Lethbridge Report"
"Twenty-first century readers of T. C. Lethbridge’s wartime “Observations upon Unusual Phenomena Noted in the Cambridge District” . . . may be forgiven for suspecting that the author was paranoid or delusional. The Lethbridge report weaves conspiracy theory around bus tickets, pieces of brown paper, markings on telegraph poles, piles of small stones, empty packets of Craven A cigarettes and doodles found in telephone directories. Yet there is a sense in which Lethbridge’s writing is characteristic of an age in which large numbers of literate people were fascinated by spy thrillers and detective stories. Such was the importance of these fictions in the popular imagination of the 1940s that Lethbridge’s conclusions about a secret network of foreign agents ‘invaders’ and ‘traitors’ might have appeared, to readers schooled in the right kind of books, both sensible and plausible."

So why do I bring before you these two tales about Lethbridge. Well, to return to a phrase used by my correspondent whom I mentioned earlier, these stories help raise the question of whether one is engaged in either trail-following or trail-making.

And, to that question, we now turn.

Let’s take the first story. There is good evidence that a chalk figure did, in fact, at one time exist on the side of Wandlebury  (although it was almost certainly not a prehistoric figure but one made in the late 16th or early 17th centuries) and so, in this sense, Lethbridge was trail-following. However, very quickly — as he did on many other occasions — Lethbridge took a few grounded hints and clues, jumbled them up with other free-floating local myths and legends of which there are many in these parts, and began to engage in some highly evocative and effective trail-making. There was, possibly, something to be found but what he actually “found” was something he had made.

In the second case a similar dynamic can be seen to be at work. There is little doubt that in 1940 there were to be found in Cambridgeshire people spying on behalf of the Nazis to help aid an invasion. But Lethbridge once again took this possible trail to be found and quickly turned it into a trail he was making.    

In both cases there was something grounded out in fact going on — a desire to uncover an interesting historical feature in the landscape and to track down and thwart enemy spies — but this grounded aim was then quickly lost or at least almost totally subsumed in the creation of something else, something essentially fictional.

Now, Lethbridge is extremely helpful to consider here because looking at these two stories (and, indeed, his work as a whole) we see clearly someone problematically stepping again and again over the line from trail-following into inappropriate trail-making all the while claiming, vociferously, that he was simply trail-following.

With this thought in mind let’s move from Lethbridge and archeology into the religious and philosophical sphere — a central concern of a community such as our own.

From Michael Meier's Atalanta Fugiens (1615)
As a community of religious and philosophical freethinkers born out of the white heat of first the Renaissance, then the Reformation and finally the Enlightenment we have inherited the strong belief that we are not at all like Lethbridge — we are most assuredly trail-followers not trail-makers. I reproduce the picture from Michael Meier’s book of alchemical emblems, the Atalanta Fugiens (1617), because it is a terrific visual depiction of this deeply held intellectual idea. In it we see the scholar following the clear trail left by Nature. The claim is that as long as we use the right methods and pay close and careful attention to the facts we will find the trail and be able to follow it without misreading it or getting hopelessly lost.

But it seems to me that in religious and philosophical spheres there is not necessarily and always an already existent trail to be followed. It was Heidegger who realised that what made us the distinctive creatures we are was our continuous ability to create new trails and paths that lead to the creation of new worlds of meaning and practice. So, for example, once upon a time there existed no such thing as the world of jazz, or the world of neoliberal finance-capitalism, the world of communism, the worlds of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, the world of the natural sciences. Worlds come about, exist for a time then and go. Worlds that have gone include, for example those of the Greek and Roman gods; a world that I particularly look forward to going is the world of neoliberal finance-capitalism.

The point I want to make here is that we are creatures who by our very nature are always capable of making new trails and paths to new worlds of meaning and practice and we must be clear that this is not, per se, always and necessarily an inappropriate or a wrong thing to be doing. What we do need to be clear about, however, is better to become aware of when we are (and should) be trail-making, when we are not (and should not) be be trail-making but rather trail-following and when we should be trying to combine the two approaches in some measure.

In my role as your minister I have lost count of the times I have had long and complex conversations with people struggling to deal with just such a set of questions. Often there will be much initial talk about a person’s desire to find and follow this or that already existent trail, path or way, but this desire to follow a trail quickly shows itself to be more often than not, as much of a trail-making exercise as anything else.

Seeing this happen so clearly, so many times, I have been forced to ask myself about how much of my own religious and philosophical quest has been about trail-making rather than trail-following? It raises for me, again and again, the perennial question of whether there are in fact firm and clear religious, philosophical, theological paths or ways “out there” to be found and followed or whether many (perhaps most) of trails we think we have found are, in fact, ones we have made or are in the course of making ourselves?

So many of my conflicts and disagreements with orthodox, conservative religious believers of all kinds are centred on this entangled nexus of questions. They are, of course, completely convinced there exists “out there” only one true path — and a one narrow one at that — to be discovered and followed. Today, I find I disagree with them wholeheartedly about this and simply cannot believe this is true. The older and older I get it seems to me that the "landscape-that-is-unfolding-reality" is much more like a virgin wilderness where there are as yet no fixed paths to follow but only possibilities for continued path making in this direction or that. I simply no longer think there is in any absolute moral sense any right or wrong path to be made even though I acknowledge there are paths we can make that will tip us over into dangerous and life-threatening chasms, off cliffs and into bogs and quicksands. These latter paths are, not surprisingly, generally best to be avoided. The art of journeying through reality is, generally to make paths that lead to somewhat different and less catastrophic and apocalyptic kinds of places or fields of possibility and meaning.

These reflections bring me back to a passage that had a profound impact upon me when I first read them only five or six years ago. They appear at the very beginning of a book called “The Self in Transformation” (Basic Books, New York 1963, p.1) by Herbert Fingarette. Fingarrete is an American philosopher and emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara whose work deals with questions concerning philosophy of mind, psychology, ethics, law, and Chinese philosophy. He begins by quoting the early Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu (4th century BCE)

          In practising and cherishing the old,
          he attains the new;
          Attaining the new, he reanimates the old;
          He is indeed a teacher (Chuang-Tzu).

Fingarette then goes on to write:

“This book arises out of a journey of self-exploration and self-teaching. has this journey been a professional one or a personal one? Indeed, the distinction between the two seems to dissolve. In making the journey, I have had no aims. These studies are outcomes rather than realised objectives. They are intellectual footprints, not blueprints. The reader will eventually identify their shape and dimensions to his own satisfaction; he will find their place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which they point.”

These words remind me of the vital importance and role of trail-making, and of understanding, as another of my philosophical heroes Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) once observed, “That the reflection worth indulging doesn’t know where it is going.” 

It seems to me that Lethbridge is worthy of our attention because he shows us clearly how NOT to go about trail-making. The problem is that learning how to trail-make well is always going to be a highly risky matter as the ancient explorers heading out into the pathless wilderness always knew—the risks of getting it wrong were and are very high. But if we don’t go and try to make new trails and paths then we condemn ourselves to continue to follow already existing trails and paths which, in so many cases, are by now deeply problematic and dangerous. In truth we have no choice but to make new trails and paths but let’s make damned sure that we don’t make them in the way Lethbridge did.