The Sacred Combe, Simon Barnes, Bloomsbury, 97801472914016.
A gentle, gripping, insightful evocation of the places that take root in our hearts as the idylls we often yearn for but only fleetingly find. For sportswriter and naturalist Barnes there has been a certain valley in Zambia that is his sacred combe, a space where the veil between heaven and earth is torn and the raw viscerality of the natural world is suffused with a beauty that is simultaneously hyper real and ethereal, timeless, spiritual. While Barnes keeps going back and back and back again to this tiny slither of redemption he is equally sure that it can be found in other places, often much nearer to home – a postage stamp of a reserve in the heart of Redditch, a slice of Norfolk marsh, the interstices between buildings in our great cities. In one way Barnes is trying to show that for each of us there is a Diagon Alley, a place of delights that is only accessible at certain times and if you approach it from a certain angle. But he is also describing a mini Eden, a place of pastoral reconnection where humanity is a cog in the process of life rather than the motor grinding all the delicately balanced gears into dust.
That his main descriptive metaphors for such places come from the writings of the Inklings – Tolkein and Lewis especially, is, I think, quite telling. Both writers were, in their creation of other worlds, trying to re-connect an increasingly urban society with, in general, God the Creator and more specifically with the Christian faith. Perhaps Christ could be seen as a sacred combe made manifest in human form and in liturgy we have a form of communal activity that tries to thin the air between heaven and earth, bringing us into a space that is both utterly real and utterly other. Which is, as I am sure Thom Yorke and many other musicians would argue, also something that good music often also achieves.
I’m not going to push this any further, instead I’ll turn back to the combe, however, in passing let me just mention that while reading Barnes book I was also re-visiting the novels the first got me into reading as a child, ‘BB’s tales of the little grey men and Bill Badger. The very act of re-reading such formative childhood texts was in itself the re-creation of a sacred combe, a place that is less homely than home while simultaneously being somewhere where you can be truly yourself. Of course, the ‘BB’ stories were also all about finding the ideal habitat, the nurturing community of a combe that can accommodate the ‘other’, in this case the natural familiars of gnomes and talking beasts.
While I can reasonably easily pick out the songs of many of our more common bird species I am no expert, certainly not in the league of Barnes, but like him I’m also not over concerned with chasing a ‘twitch’ halfway across the country. If a rare species, flora or fauna, crosses my path then, yes, there is a fleeting elation that leaves a comet tail of afterglow that it is sometimes tempting to try and re-create, however, experience has taught me that this is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. The afternoon in Bentley Wood when the drifting busyness of White Admirals was disturbed by the imperial cascade of a single male Purple Emperor from the tree tops to drink at the muddy path beneath our feet. The jewelled times on Martin Down walking the paths to spot Marsh Fritillaries or, later, Silver-Studded Blues, spying on the nesting Stone Curlews – getting that enormous yellow eye right in the centre of the ‘scope – being buzzed by bumbling cockchafers as the evening light falls and then waiting for the moment the clapping and churring began and the nightjars started to display, before walking home on a path illuminated by glow worms. The one afternoon in Groveley Wood, when the whole place was alive with thousands upon thousands of Peacock butterflies, numbers so staggeringly huge the significant population of the Valesina form of Silver Washed Fritillaries, which we had come to see again, were totally swamped by their more gaudy neighbours. That searingly hot afternoon in the New Forest when, over a rapidly drying pool hardly bigger than the collection plate at Salisbury Cathedral, the clearing was vibrating to the beat of a thousand wings as dragonflies of all shapes and sizes – skimmers and hawkers, chasers and darters from a dozen different species fought for air supremacy. Or looking down on peregrine and puffin at St Aldhem’s Head, sitting for lunch on a clifftop tussock with adders sunning themselves on a nearby rock. Or that day at Studland when rounding every sand dune threw up something new – a swimming grass snake, bathing deer, round leaved sundews, sand lizards, basking smooth snakes, a water rail, diving terns and a shoreline covered in shells. Or crab catching on the Worms Head to the background whirr of Great Green Bush Crickets on the headland behind. Or that strange and surreal September afternoon when a single Swallowtail Butterfly hatched out in our North Somerset garden and took flight across the village in a doomed search for an autumnal mate. None of these are repeatable. I know, I’ve tried, these things never work out twice. Last year, at the third annual attempt we finally found the Large Blue Butterflies on Collard Down. Is it worth us trying again?
Perhaps Barnes is saying that it is. After all, he keeps going back to his Zambian combe. But what matters is not that you are trying to recreate some perfect day but that you remain open to the possibility of the new and that you keep your heart and mind, soul and instinct alert to the song of creation, because once that song has gone there will be no hope for the planet.