Marsden, P. (2014) Rising Ground A Search for the Spirit of Place GRANTA ISBN 978 1 84708 628 0
“Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh…”
T. S. Eliot Lines 5-7 of ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets (1944)
“Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authetic’ existence. Heidegger is pretty severe about what constitutes authenticity, but his ‘dwelling’ does highlight something we’ve lost in our hyper-connected world, something that I found myself rediscovering that spring down at the end of the long track: the ability to immerse ourselves in one place.”
pg 20-21 Rising Ground
Philip Marsden is the award-winning author of a number of works of travel, fiction and non-fiction, including The Bronski House, The Spirit-Wrestlers, and The Levelling Sea. However, it’s not exotic travels but creating a home that moves him on his latest journey. As Rising Ground opens, he and his wife have sold their coastal Cornish house to move inland to a remote creekside farmhouse at Ardevora, on the River Fal, in Cornwall, and there, he falls in love with the place.
The intensity of his response to place takes him aback and prompts questions: Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? and a fragmented walk westwards to Land’s End.
“From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other ‘topophiles’ before him – medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters.”
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“Beginning his reconstruction of the house, he calls to mind Heidegger’s 1954 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which the philosopher writes of a 200-year-old farmhouse in the Black Forest: “Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals, enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house.” Building and thinking causes Marsden to ask what dwelling in a landscape really means – and so he sets off on a circular journey towards Land’s End, considering not only the landscape but also those who have gone before him and been equally compelled by rivers, coast and moor.”
Erica Wagner, the New Statesman, 2014
“The book becomes an elliptical tour with a polymathic guide, equally entertaining and enlightening whether plunging through hedges, excavating archives or attending a pagan night in Penzance.”
Horatio Clare, The Independent (09 October 2014)
Marsden lives comfortably with the past, so much so that in Rising Ground the present often feels lightweight and paper thin. What begins as a tribute to an old house, becomes a tribute to Cornwall, its history-laden beauty.
Whilst the book’s aim is to learn more about the spirit of place, what it reveals and celebrates best is the spirit of people, the lone figures in a landscape, each in their own way beguiled by place.
Most fascinating, were his 20th C portraits of Cornwall’s poet Jack Clemo whose voice is described as
“the conscience of the post-industrial age, crying from the white wilderness of Cornwall’s clay dumps”
Ibid. pg. 141
and the artist Peter Lanyon.
“For him, tackling the big questions meant an understanding of place – not the regional or provincial, but the local, where a single field or lone cove can conjure up a whole world. In his painting he was trying to recreate a ‘mile of history in agesture’. The past was not something dusty and ossified but raw material from which to build a picture of our time.”
Ibid. pg 213.
This is a profoundly thoughtful and well-researched book, the past infuses every page. Marsden is a skillful and curious companion and storyteller on his westward journey of discovery towards Land End and the sea.