Flooding of Memories

Years ago, one of my poetry professors told us to take an opening line from a published poem and to then write our own poem to go with it. I chose the first line of Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries” (first published, I believe, in his collection The Spirit Level: Poems):

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.

Today, this line has come back to me several times throughout the day. I’d share with you the poem that I wrote, but I have no idea where it is. Whereas Heaney’s poem offered a glimpse into the everyday life of civilians in Northern Ireland, I recall that I was inspired by a summer hiking in North Carolina and Tennessee–the same summer in which I discovered efts hiding beneath rocks and branches. It seemed as if the rain would never stop, and I forgot, for a time, what dry socks felt like.

So you may have already guessed that it’s been raining a lot here in Colorado.

Walking along the sidewalks of my campus, I found I had to navigate carefully, for stretched across the pavement were hundreds of earthworms. Several trees on campus are in the process of dropping needles and twigs that are about the same length and width as the worms, and while I am indifferent to stepping on these, I wanted to avoid stepping on a worm. They may have minuscule brains, but they do have nervous systems and are capable of feeling pain. (Yes, I try to avoid stepping on other critters–ants, beetles, spiders, etc. I still feel terribly guilty about the massasauga rattlesnake that I ran over with my bicycle as a teenager. It blended in so well to the gravelly road that I did not see it until I was already halfway over it.)

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

–Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits (1881)

I’ve always thought that earthworms came to the surface during rainstorms seeking refuge from their flooded tunnels, so I was surprised to learn that they “are unable to drown like a human would, and they can even survive several days fully submerged in water” (“Why Do Earthworms Surface After Rain?”). Rather, scientists suggest that earthworms take advantage of the moist conditions to migrate–they can travel above soil faster and do not have to fear the heat of the sun. Another possibility (both are discussed in the article linked above) is that the vibrations of the rain resemble the vibrations made by predators, and that earthworms surface to avoid becoming a mole’s dinner.

_Der Naturen Bloeme_, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 136r, ca. 1350. Two worms rising out of the soil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of worm migration, particularly since water has often played a major role in human migrations. I often have my students look at Matthew Paris’s 1250 Map of Britain, and one of the things that they tend to notice right away is the proliferation of towns along the rivers (not to mention the worm-like appearances of the rivers).

The fear of drowning, though, does not appear as often as one might expect in medieval literature. Custance, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, is placed in “a ship al steerelees” (439); however, she is provided with ample provisions (a good thing since she floats in that boat for years). She briefly expresses her fear of drowning, equating the submersion of her body under the waves with the consumption of her body and soul by the devil, when she cries out to the Lord to protect her:

Me fro the feend and fro his clawes kepe,
That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (454-55)

The waves are briefly “wilde” (468), suggesting that she experiences storms, but the text does not linger on the fear produced by the threatening waves.

Another medieval text, King Horn, features the dangers of the seas, for when the titular hero’s father is killed by Saracens, Horn is spared (due to his great beauty)–only to be placed, along with his twelve companions, in a boat. The Saracens tell him:

Tharvore thu most to stere,
Thu and thine ifere;
To schupe schulle ye funde,
And sinke to the grunde. (105-08)

The appearance of the protagonist in a rudderless boat is a common device in medieval romance (and we can trace it back further to the classical story of Danaë and Perseus), but my encounter with the worms braving the sidewalks in the rain has piqued my interest in these scenes and the expression of emotion. For example, in King Horn, the children are very frightened:

The se that schup so fasste drof
The children dradde therof. (123-24)

But as with Chaucer’s Custance, the narrator does not linger on the experience. Why might that be?

Manuscript images dealing with Noah’s flood depict the drowned in great detail. Take a look at this fourteenth-century depiction:

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Look at how calm the dead are:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.18.56 PM

The awkward position of the hands and the open mouth of the man at the bottom suggests that he is in some distress, but the woman floating above him seems to have a serene look on her face (although I wonder about the curled toes and the uncomfortable angle of her left hand . . . ). The gentle undulations of the waves only add to the calm atmosphere of the water, especially when contrasted against the busy and angular background behind the ship as well as the patterning on the ship itself.

Another depiction of the drowned appears in the Bible pictures by William de Brailes:

These dead are much greater in number (not to mention orderly–there are clear layers of humans, birds, and domestic livestock), but they still look peaceful, almost as if they are slumbering:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.29.25 PMSome of the bodies at the top almost resemble merpeople due to the lines of the waves. Speaking of which, these waves are more dangerous, threatening to break out of the image’s frame and almost evoking arms seeking the living to draw beneath the waves. (Perhaps this is why no Ark appears in the image?)

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.32.12 PM

I’m sure I could find many more medieval images of those drowned in the Biblical story of the Flood (and for those interested in the topic, the incomparable Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written a blog post on another manuscript depiction of Noah’s flood at http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2013/05/intercatastrophe-overwhelmed-outside.html), but I won’t.

I wonder, though, if there’s something to the seeming gap between the living expressing their fear while at sea and those who have come to their watery grave. I recall hearing John Block Friedman speak a few years ago on werewolves and their transformation–he was interested in the lack of detail as to the actual transformation–manuscript images only depicted the before and the after–and I wonder if there’s something similar going on here. That is, I imagine drowning to be a terrible and frightening way to die (and so I’m glad to hear that worms cannot drown during rain storms). Perhaps, given the importance of maritime trade in England, drowning was a very real threat, but the agony of either drowning or watching another person drown was just too much for medieval authors and artists to imagine.

The allure of traveling by sea, despite its dangers, was too great for those living in the medieval period–the ability to rely on currents of wind and water rather than one’s own power, to see any enemies from afar rather than wondering if they lay in wait in the underbrush surrounding medieval roads. So too are earthworms driven above ground to migrate from one patch of soil to another. I don’t know if they are aware of the inherent dangers–from the tread of indifferent soles to animals in search of a quick meal. No doubt they can feel the vibrations as we approach them. Nonetheless, they–and we–are driven to chance these perilous paths.

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Invasive Species and Medieval Literature

In Layamon’s Brut, a thirteenth-century early Middle English chronicle, based on the earlier accounts by Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, England is a land that is constantly under siege. The section that I work with the most–known as the “Arthurian Section”–documents the invasion of the Saxons and their depredations against the English people.

According to Wace:

Fors de lur nés a terre eissierent,
Par tut le päis s’espandirent,
Armes quistrent e robes pristrent,
Maisuns arstrent, humes ocistrent

[They swarmed off their ships onto land and spread through the region, seeking weapons, taking clothes, burning houses, killing men] (from Judith E. Weiss’s 2002 edition and translation, Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British).

Layamon expands significantly on this moment:
Sone swa heo a lond comen; þat folc heo a-sloȝen.
þa cheorles heo uloȝen; þa tileden þa eorðen.
heo hengen þa cnihtes; þa biwusten þa londes.
alle þa gode wiues; heo stikeden mid cnifes.
alle þa maidene; heo mid morðe aqualden. (10457-61)

The violence enacted by the Saxons is much more explicit and detailed than in Layamon’s sources. The people are broken down into their tripartite functions–those who work the earth (the “cheorles”), those who protect the physical bodies of the citizens (the “cnihtes,” or knights), and later, those who protect the souls of the people–the priests (not in the excerpt above)–and all are slaughtered. What interests me here is the relation between the people and the land, especially since Layamon explicitly references the land (“eorðen” and “londes”) more than Wace does. The land becomes inert–there are no longer people to till it or to protect it, and the females capable of birthing future generations are destroyed in a violent parody of the agricultural process.

And that led me to wonder: to what extent do medieval texts include descriptions of the land and the impact of invasions on it?

In the Middle English 13th-century King Horn, Horn’s father encounters “Saracens” (a vague term often applied to non-Christian groups in medieval literature) while riding along the shores of his land. The invaders tell the king,

“Thy lond folk we schulle slon,
And alle that Crist luveth upon
And the selve right anon.
Ne shaltu todai henne gon.” (47-50)
The Saracens kill the king and proceed to slaughter the inhabitants–those who refuse to give up their religion–but there is no mention of the people’s relationship with the land, and while the churches are destroyed, the land seems to remain fairly intact. Interestingly, Horn’s mother retreats into a “roche of stone” (77) until her son matures and avenges his father.

While the 14th-century Fouke Fitz Waryn is not necessarily an invasion story (it’s often classified alongside the Robin Hood ballads as an “outlaw” tale), it offers an interesting picture of the impact of local skirmishes between the Normans and the Welsh upon the Marcher landscape. Throughout the text, towns and castles are constantly constructed, and these same towns and castles are constantly destroyed. Keep in mind that at this time, castles were large fortifications, often surrounded by earthen ramparts and wooden palisades. Construction required massive amounts of rock from quarries and timber from forests, and the creation of moats and ramparts would significantly disturb the soil. The sieges themselves could last for entire summers (this was the prime time because the invading armies could find adequate supplies). Just as in Layamon’s Brut, the rural populations were either destroyed or displaced–which would prevent opportunities to plant new trees (and other crops). The Marcher areas were largely mountainous, which means that the thin layers of soil would easily be eroded away once the trees and other natural vegetation would be harvested.

But all of these details are absent from the text; at no point does the narrator draw attention to the depredations on the land or express concern about the ecology. Of course, this is due to the purpose of the text–it is an “ancestral” romance, designed to highlight the struggles and victories of an aristocratic family.Another 14th-century outlaw tale, the Norse Saga of Án Bow-Bender, recounts a feud between Án Bow-Bender and King Ingjald. What is interesting is that whereas there seemed to be no concern for the land in Fouke Fitz Waryn, it is implicitly present here. This is, I think, due to the significantly different ecology of Norway as compared to England. The Norse relied heavily on both animal husbandry and agriculture, but because they did not use crop rotation techniques until late in the medieval period, they relied heavily on manure to ensure adequate crops. Therefore, livestock and plants–including fields that provided fodder for livestock–were valued highly. Although the king’s men do burn down a farm at which Án sought refuge (and Án subsequently rebuilds the structure), they only do so once (as opposed to the repeated cycles of destruction and rebuilding in Fouke Fitz Waryn). Rather than seek protection in a large man-made fortification (as Fouke and his relatives do), Án is more likely to turn to natural strongholds, such as caves, forests, etc. (and Grettir follows a similar pattern in Grettis Saga).

I can’t help but think that if Án’s story took place in England, either he would deplete the surrounding landscape to build castles, or if he retreated to the natural landscape, his enemies would subsequently raze his land to the point where it could no longer sustain human life (at least not for a while). From what I’ve read in Middle English literature (and there are several other texts that I could reference aside from the few mentioned here), there seems to be an indifference to the extent of natural resources at hand. While the medieval Norse texts do contain destruction of man-made structures, they do not occur with the frequency that they occur in the Middle English works. Perhaps this is due to the smaller scale of conflicts in Norway. Or perhaps it is an implicit recognition that in Norway (and Iceland), resources were much more limited and therefore could not be destroyed as willfully as in England.

Right now, the forests in Colorado are under siege. In part by humans–Colorado is a destination location, so new houses will always require timber. But there is another invasive species that has resulted in many dead and diseased trees that not only do not serve the local ecology (human or otherwise), but they also have added to the number and intensity of wildfires in the state. Not much, if anything, can be done to stop the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Here are two pictures that I took a few years ago which show some of the damaged trees; the top picture shows trees after a wildfire swept through the area, and the second shows several trees killed by the Pine Beetle.

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

What’s the connection between invading forces in medieval literature and the Pine Beetle? Both seem to be unstoppable. Neither seem cognizant of the harm being done. Both are driven, at least to some extent, by the need for survival. The Pine Beetle does not maliciously kill these trees, after all–as it bores through the bark of pine trees, the side effect is the death of the tree. The “Saracens” were in search–historically and in the literature–of resources–treasure as well as natural resources–to ensure their survival (and their ability to flourish). And of course, one of the conditions that has allowed the Pine Beetle to spread so quickly is global warming–that is, higher temperatures which, through our continued drive to use resources with little thought to how they will be replenished, is also due to human activities. How different are we, then, from the Pine Beetle?