“A Scattering of Influences”

Ideas that Shape My Perceptions

1. Trees in Mind

There was an ash tree clearly in view from my window. It was not far away. Yet I could never locate it when I went searching for it. I saw the tree sway in the wind. I saw it shed its leaves in the autumn. I saw it stand in stark defiance of winter. I saw a re-awakening in spring but only from a distance. Close to the ash tree disappeared. And I cannot explain this.

We think trees are stationary. We suppose them to be symbols of stability and sturdiness. Then we observe how, almost invisibly, they grow. They move by stealth, like a secret army. At times it may seem that they lead clandestine lives, dancing in the moonlight at the witching hour. And, like all that lives, in time they wither.

In memory, however, certain trees are among the things that continue to live within me. Outside the headmaster’s study of my junior school there was a reproduction of a John Piper picture of trees looking like gigantic mushrooms. It fascinated me because it was so unusual. It was another way of looking at trees. It was a way of reminding us that trees grew organically in fertile soil. They lived by nourishment as all living things do. Trees weren’t minerals like rock or iron. They weren’t animate, but they were alive, like flowers and mushrooms.

Eventually I saw the original picture unexpectedly. I was taken by surprise. I was taken back to that dark corridor with its Venetian marble floor, cracked by the shifting of the building years before. Nothing remains in place for ever, not even brick and stone.

From that picture of the trees I learned a lot about nature. I learned especially that how we see nature is how it influences us. If we see it as a set of conveniences we too easily dismiss some things as impediments to our selfish way of looking at the world. It is more natural to seek to attune our personal feelings to the living world.

A line of poplar trees curtained the front lawn of the school from the road. They’re gone now because they were deemed unsafe. Today the school is barricaded with high wire fences like a prison, as if hordes of predators are seen to be roaming the water meadows and farm lanes.


2. Places in Mind

An early memory is looking out across the playing fields and the water meadows to some interesting houses. They had a commanding position. I wondered who lived there and how you reached them. Years later my father lived in one of those houses. I felt I had conjured the scene from my imagination as if my infant curiosity had created the future.

When I went back to have a look again at the prospect of houses I heard a familiar tune from childhood floating across the water meadows, and I felt like a time traveller until I saw the music was coming from the church fayre. That is the rational explanation. No puzzle there, but I feel that I was summoning the past.

We move in and out of time. I know we do. We were walking recently through Istanbul. Today I walk through that city in my mind. Then we sit in our favourite café in Avignon. In Festival time the square is people with performers and revellers. At other times it is a quiet, sequestered space in a corner of Provence.

The Provencal spiral dance, as in song about the Avignon bridge, is a familiar sight in the midsummer celebrations of St John’s Eve. We have marched in the procession behind the Fire of St John in the streets of Arles. We been enchanted by the dance and music in Aix. These festivities surely have their origin in Sufic rites when Provence was under Moorish influence, when Africa spoke with Europe in trade and custom and culture.

I dreamed of looking out of the window, and over the hill was Africa. Years later in Andalusia I looked out from the Sierra Nevada and saw Africa. I remembered at once the dream I had had as a child of nine or ten. It was not so much a dream as a prediction whose accuracy makes it an objective fact.

Another dream was of a town by the sea that at high tide admitted water into its streets so that they became canals. At low tide they were streets again. This process occurred every day. A town by the sea and in the sea. I know of no such place in the world, although I’ve hoped, seriously, to find this place. The dream is an amalgam of childhood memories of flooded streets, and a projection of coastal towns, their rivers and harbours.


3. Dreams in Mind

I have a belief in dreams. They shape our waking lives. I wonder if they are not as important as our waking lives. I wonder if they are not equally real to what happens, or what we suppose happens, in our waking lives. We speak of the dead of night when the truth is that things happen that determine our daily lives.

Memories are akin to dreams. I am tempted to say – I am saying – the two states of mind resemble each other so closely they are almost interchangeable. If I believe in dreams must I also believe in memory? We have memories – that is true. We have memories – are they true? The answer has to be that what I am influenced by I am able to influence. I am not a stone that does not breathe. I am a tree that lives. I move at night, shifting positions with the mood of my dreams.

Asleep, I try to make sense of things. What often results is a nonsense of unconnected images and unlikely actions. My waking thoughts are random, too, although I present them to the world, and even to myself, as reasoned statements of a calm, assured mind in control of all that surrounds me. So much floats on the water that flows from the sea into the streets. These thoughts, for example.

Naturally. I try to make sense of them. I suppose they have a purpose. Sometimes I imagine they have a purpose. I think my imagination is a reality more focused on the real than what passes for reality.


4. The Sea in Mind

The waters that flowed through the streets of my childhood and then through my dreams are the tidal waves that brought the ships with their cargoes from distant places. Vessels, some of them renowned, were built on the river banks. How could I not think of sailing out to undiscovered lands?

There came the time we sailed along the Amalfi coast past the group of islets, the Isole di Gallo, that are said to be the rocks on which the Sirens lured sailors to their death. If that is so then Odysseus passed through these waters. There was an ethereal calm the day we passed by. There was no music to be heard. It was the stillness that proved so compelling to the imagination when my mind goes back, as it does now.

I have an attraction to islands, not large ones but islands where the sea is always present. Ischia, once the haunt of pirates, and then a refuge for exiles. Aran, with its riders to the sea. Lindisfarne, another England, a hermit’s isle. Dry Salvages, no more than rocks off Cape Ann, a warning to ships sailing into Boston.

An island is defined by the sea that surrounds it. A constant presence, the sea is a perpetual threat even it is calm because a storm can break out without warning. Storms are invading armies laying siege to the land which stone by stone slips away. Once there were settlements that long since vanished into the water. It may be a myth that the bells in the church tower can be heard chiming. But towers and steeples at times appear above the waves.

The sea can seem like a conscious presence, aware of its purpose and desire to reclaim the land. We always have in our minds the memory of the Flood, common to many cultures, to unconnected peoples who share the ancient fear. In former times they spoke of water rising from the hollow earth. Today we observe how the polar ice melts and the seas are rising because of avoidable human action. We are returning ourselves to the waters from which we emerged aeons ago.


5. Writing in Mind

And the writing I find congenial connects with other things. Moby Dick, for example, is an extraordinary epic of the sea [of course], but also of obsession and how our quest for justice can sour into revenge and so destroy us. The enemy is not the whale. The enemy is the pursuit of the whale.

The atmosphere of a dream, in the case of Moby Dick a nightmare, is a theme with so many variations in the writing I return to. I find John Fowles so compelling because his narratives are like dreams that have a logic that makes less sense on waking. The motives for his characters’ actions are often unclear, although the stories they tell of themselves admit some sympathy even when they make victims of others, and victims of us as readers.

The essays by Fowles, The Tree, Islands and The Land, form a trilogy that, it seems to me, are the essence of a reasoned and sensitive response to nature.

A response to a favourite city is Durrell’s Monsieur. Like a sphinx haunting a half-ruined chateau, Monsieur speaks of many strange things in Avignon, Venice and in the Egyptian desert. These are locations where mysteries may occur. The desire for knowledge of the spirit vies with desire for sensual experience, leaving the reader to wonder where one ends and the other begins.

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About Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of a novel, Heaven's Invention, and several plays performed and/or published. Recent poetry appears in Poetry Pacific and Penwood Review. Recent stories appear in Black Dandy and Fiction Week. Recent essays appear in The London Magazine and Montreal Review.