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Grounded: A journey into the landscapes of our ancestors by James Canton

12 May 2023

Sally Welch finds this journey incomplete

MY FIRST engagement with this book was scanning the names chosen to “boost” it on its back cover. The praise and recommendations come from a writer on gardening, an academic writer concerned with exploring “who or what are we” and “what are we doing here”, and a third writer who focuses on “reframing our understanding of what it is like to be an animal and what our role is as humans”.

So, not much theology there, then. Indeed, James Canton states plainly that he is “no Christian”. None the less, his interaction with the landscape takes the form of a search for the sacred, as he sets out to “peer more deeply into the profound reality of what we are as living individual beings, what life is all about”. This exploration takes the form of stepping further and further back in time, “steadily excavating a greater understanding of how we as humans have come to see spaces upon the landscape as holding special importance” .

Canton is the Director of the MA course in Wild Writing at Essex University, and this book is a wonderful example of the genre. He notices the details of the landscape, inhabits the seasons, and expresses his appreciation of them in an intensely lyrical and personal way. He slips through time effortlessly — Otzi the Man in the Ice, buried 3400 BCE with fire-lighting equipment, triggers a memory of lighting fires with his young son. Considering West Kennet Longbarrow, Canton almost incurs a speeding fine; dropping a coin into a river from a bridge glides into a consideration of sacred offerings and their sites.

The amount of history, in terms of time that is covered, is huge, as is the scope of Canton’s reflections. He journeys to the chapels and churches built on sacred sites; he experiences the savagery of a “desecrated place” in the site of a man’s burning to death. In contrast is the discovery of “holy fire”, the hearth as the centre of the home. Finally, all is brought together in a deeper understanding of how the sacred is embedded in the natural world.

I enjoyed the book and learnt from the book. But something is missing if we recognise the glory of creation without being able to see the hand of the Creator, and celebrate the holy without acknowledging that “the earth is charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). That final imprint of Love, which adds depth and colour to the sketch drawing of the sacred, and answers for all time the question “why we are here”, is absent; and I felt that absence.

The Revd Dr Sally Welch is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

Grounded: A journey into the landscapes of our ancestors
James Canton
Canongate £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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