…it appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities that bring you near to the one estrange you from the other… The mind that perceives clearly any natural beauty is in that instant withdrawn from human society. Henry Thoreau
The word ‘landscape’ involves a human being unlike ‘land’ which is unpopulated. Landscape is something we create by looking; it is our perspective on the land and the meaning we make of it. Thus landscape poets and artists interact with a place when they write about or paint it and, through this interaction, they change land into landscape. Interaction with the land is something which is important to Dylan who I think is acutely aware of landscape.
In a previous post I described how Dylan takes his visual bearings from the landscape.Taking bearings from the landscape is not only a visual process however; Dylan also interacts with the land through touch. We have two sticks which we always carry on walks and Dylan uses these to prod and probe anything unusual and as depth testers in rivers and waterfalls. Dylan engages with the landscape through his other senses as well, listening and sniffing along the route. In another post I have described how as a toddler Dylan used to lie on the ground in the woods and speculated that this was for the physical sensation of leaves and soil on his back as well as for the sensation of light through the leaf canopy. Because Dylan experiences sensory disturbance, particularly aurally, I imagine the countryside to be a more comfortable environment for him than the city. Here there is less language and sounds are easier to discern; I only rarely see Dylan put his fingers in his ears or clamp an arm over his head in order to block his ears as I see him do frequently in our city community.
I imagine the soundscape of the countryside is part of the landscape from which Dylan takes his bearings. I don’t think this process is something which is exclusive to Dylan or autism; I can also take bearings from landscape. The poem below recounts an experience I had while driving through Missouri in 1981. I had been living in the US for a year and had not been missing England but that morning was overwhelmed by thoughts of home. Later I discovered that the rolling hills of Missouri were limestone, the same geology as the Peak District where I grew up. This, then, was the landscape of home and that morning its pull on me was enough to make me nauseous. The poem opens years later with me explaining limestone to my daughter while we are away from home.
In Dorset I am explaining it is limestone,
like at home, makes the hills roll.
From a motorboat near Lulworth Cove
I show her how the soft cliffs fall
in pale curves to a lather of waves –
name her homestone in its litany
of Pennine, Portland, Purbeck, Chalk.
Though I am all the link with home
her four years needs or wants,
I know that one day, motherless,
she will need to recognise
the lift and fall of limestone land,
to understand the strength of stone
to make hearts sicken for loss of home.
Like when, a continent ago,
I crossed America in a quest
to cast off the past, begin again.
How it happened then: the early morning
passing of the state line, radio playing,
land mist rising, the road rolling gently
through hills emerging, either side.
And how the lift and fall of lightness –
an unbearable nothing – weighed me
down. I stopped the car and stumbled
out – paced the edges of a roadside resting ground
(nauseous, breathless) – then paused
before an information board – tried,
distractedly, to make it sense.
So this was limestone – Missouri Limestone.
I scanned the names of other places it occurred
for news of home – some explanation
for the fissure in my heart’s stone.
In previous posts I have suggested that the natural world can be more than just a touchstone for Dylan – it is therapeutic and a source of healing. This very powerful interaction with the natural environment seems to involve specific landscape features for Dylan; rock formations and water are very important to him, but perhaps more than any other geological feature Dylan seems to take his bearings from trees. Some of my other posts have had trees in them: My Trees Have Grown Hair: the Poetry of Autism described the way in which Dylan’s engagement with trees supported his language development and in Walking Without a Map I included a poem (‘Petty Theft’) in which Dylan is shown seeking comfort from trees after a week of disruption at home.
As we walk through our local landscape, Dylan notices and remembers the trees we pass, taking his bearings from them and learning routes through the countryside by them. Trees are dependable; they are always in the same place and they change only slowly and in predictable ways. This is a process which Dylan and I have documented in relation to one tree by photographing it at different points of the year. I first photographed the tree in order to create a visual record of one of Dylan’s favourite walks but subsequently realised the tree looked different at different times of year so took more pictures.
Tree memories run deep. Last summer I took Dylan to a wood which we used to visit occasionally with my mum. It had been ten or more years since we were there but Dylan recognised every twist and turn and led me confidently to the trees he particularly wanted to revisit. Dylan’s closest relationships with trees involve a circular passage around them, a ritual dance or a hug (indicating increasing degrees of intimacy).
One wood we visit seems to cast a spell on Dylan. When we go there Dylan stands in the south west corner by a particular group of trees, staring out over a bordering field. He always goes to the same place, a part of the wood which feels magical when I am with Dylan. I call this Dylan’s ‘spirit wood’ and if I think Dylan is in need of calm I take him there. The photographs at the end of the post are of Dylan in this wood.
I often think that there are things I could learn from Dylan’s special relationship with nature and with trees in particular. I look to him, sometimes, to guide me to a more coherent way of living, or to find some stillness in a busy life. And, again, I regard Dylan’s special feeling for landscape as one of the blessings of silence; without language, he has been able to develop depths of experience which words can get in the way of. Some innovative autism providers are increasingly drawing on the natural world when developing relevant curricula and approaches to education and care. I am sure that for some autistic children and adults, and certainly for Dylan, landscape offers an enormous potential for learning.
Barrett, Elizabeth (2005) ‘Homestone’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press
All the photographs were taken by Liz. The photograph of Dylan with his sticks was taken in a meadow between Satron and Muker in the Yorkshire Dales. The featured image and photo of the signpost were taken on the Pennine Way between Hadraw and Hawes. The seasoned tree is in the Mayfield Valley. Dylan is tree-hugging in Lea Gardens in Matlock. Dylan’s spirit wood is near Limb Valley on the edge of the Peak District.