Wednesday 21 September 2016

The persistence of Pan in my back garden

The Wildest Place on Earth was published by John Hanson Mitchell in 2002. It is about the figure of Pan, including how he is manifested in the modern world.

JHM is a writer mostly about nature; whose best book is Ceremonial Time (1984), which I have discussed and reviewed (the first is from 2001 - before I became a Christian): 

'Wildest Place' is very well written, and certainly worth reading - however, it is also undercut by a kind of post-modern irony whereby Mitchell both takes-seriously and simultaneously brackets and mocks the idea of Pan - trying to have it both ways, which is (of course) ultimately impossible...

The final chapter of the book takes the stance that Pan, and the panic which is hallmark of his presence, is still a part of the modern world; but it likely to be found in familiar places under unfamiliar circumstances, rather than in true 'wilderness'. 

This conforms to my experience earlier today. I usually get up at 05:00h, and at this time of year it is completely dark at that time. This morning, while I was drinking my coffee and reading, I heard a 'blood-curdling' noise from nearby - so I went outside ('armed' with a torch) to investigate.

The sound was coming from two or three back-gardens away, and was a bit like a goose (or more than one goose) being slowly strangled to death - except that it stopped and restarted a few times over a period of about 10 minutes. I think it very likely to have been fox cubs playing* - since they make a strange noise, and we have quite a lot of them in our part of the city and they will use our back gardens for foraging and recreation - unless they are sealed-off by intact fences (which mine, currently, is - I got sick of them digging holes in my lawn).

Nonetheless, I was beginning to feel unnerved - and this was just standing in the dark some six feet away from my back door, looking up at the gibbous moon and constellations: I was beginning to get a sense of having stepped into a primal world, where I didn't really belong and was unwelcome.

Then I heard some animal crashing through the treees or shrubs at the bottom of my garden and the probably through into nearby gardens.

I should point out to US readers that there are no dangerous animals (except for humans and pet dogs) in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, or indeed in England. And any animal capable of crashing through adjacent garden trees must have been a bird, and probably just a wood pigeon (they make a heck of a noise clapping their wings together and flapping branches around).

That is what I told myself... but I couldn't really convince myself that these noises were harmless; and I felt a slowly mouting congested panic welling-up in me. This in my own back garden standing just next to the back door!

After a minute or two, I gave up the struggle with myself, and slipped back indoors, quickly bolting my door against the night and sighing with relief!

That was exactly the kind of thing JHM was talking about. I didn't believe that Pan or one of his wild and dangerous servants was really present in my garden, and threatening my life; but neither could I convince myself that there was nothing to worry about.

I had slipped back into the primal mindset of a hunter gathere keeping watch in the night around the fire on the savannah, or in a clearing in the jungle or forest - alert and tingling with readiness to fight or run.

Civilisation does not run all that deep - it does not take all that much for us to reconnect with the animated world and the pagan gods.

*Note added - I later discovered it was the sound foxes make when mating.


Nicholas Fulford said...

The primitive is old and foundational. It reminds through taps neither gentle or subtle from time to time that not so very long ago our evolutionary ancestors were the hunted, and it really only takes a few nights in a setting where the cry of the wolf or the crashing of a large animal in the woods evokes our natural instinctive fears. It is oddly part of the charm, though I limit my exposure to places where the worst I am likely to encounter is a black bear, moose or wolf, and even then the statistics bear out that the risks are minuscule - if I am not being an idiot. But to the mind at night these risks do not *feel* minuscule in the least, even as my rational mind is telling me otherwise.

These things are part of the brain reset that comes from leaving man's world to be alone with nature for a time. Though sometimes they come unbidden in the night even in our safe urban settings.

Adam G. said...

I have of course been scared before. But I only felt the true panic--the deep awareness of present supernatural wildness--once when I was 10 in a mountain canyon of the Wasatch.

I wasn't looking for it. There was no sound other than the wind in the maples. But there was a presence there. Aware of me, but not about me.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of it is the being unaccustomed (various works of Jack London and Kipling's Captains Courageous spring to mind, but also the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories) - and herewith, how did urban and rustic ancient Greek experience of 'the Pan-ic' differ, I wonder (being so unwidely-read as to have no idea of the evidence, if any)? (Probably ethnographic evidence aplenty from the 19th c. on, for conjectural comparison...) Even urbanly-mitigated darkness is very dark indeed for many of our untrained ears and noses, and largely lore-less wits.

Occupied Europe from the autumn of 1939 in parts of the east and spring 1940 in the west may have been the last major opportunity for a lot of people to learn quiet, canny (as well as often intensely prayerful) movement after dark - with very concrete mechanized warfare and ideologized spiritual threats to be constantly faced - and from even earlier in the Far East (e.g., Manchuria from 1931 on) (with long sequels in many parts of the world for those under post-war authoritarian and/or totalitarian regimes).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Adam G. makes me think of how good Algernon Blackwood is at presenting such experiences affecting those used to 'roughing it'!

David Llewellyn Dodds