May 11, 2015 § 3 Comments
Inspiration for this blog usually comes from books I have been reading. Lately, I have been reading a clutch of books about various aspects of our relationship to the natural world – books by Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. I have written about Robert Macfarlane in a previous post (after reading the wonderful The Old Ways) and was given his newly published Landmarks for my birthday a few weeks ago. It is another remarkable book – it concerns language, the language of nature and the language of writing. It speaks of language’s power to ‘shape our sense of place’ and ‘is a field guide to the literature I love’. It is also ‘a word-hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape the exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields, and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles’. Each chapter covers an aspect of the natural world (mountain, hunting, northlands…) and at the end of each is a glossary of words relating to that subject – landscape, nature or weather – taken from dozens of dialects and languages, that Macfarlane has collected over decades. While reading them, I thought it would be great to do an equivalent glossary for pottery.
But I wanted this post to be about a quote from the chapter called The Living Mountain, a chapter devoted (truly devotional) to Nan Shepherd and her book The Living Mountain. Macfarlane states that Shepherd’s writing has much in common with Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology laid out in his book Phenomenology of Perception, which was published contemporaneously with Shepherd’s. According to Shepherd and Merleau-Ponty, we know the world bodily, we understand it through our physical experiencing of it. ‘One is not bodiless, but essential body’. The section I wanted to quote was this:
‘The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers…the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind – nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as the eye.’
Touch, the hand, is fundamental to making anything – I have often said that one of the central aspects of a handmade object is the fact that it is a conduit between the hands of the maker and that of the user – a handmade object cannot be understood without the sensation of touch. Touch makes an object present, real, knowable. And its absence, its lack, is a place of mourning. I have become acutely aware of touch as I have got to know my material, clay. I am acutely aware of its absence, too. It was that which I felt most keenly, and still feel, on the death of my brother. I will not again know his physicality, the strength of his body, his skin under my fingers.
Touch, and the lack of it, defines our place in the world.