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Published: 24 Jan 2023

Wild Moment: Terry Gifford

One of our early Members, Terry Gifford, shares his memories of getting John Muir's writing published in the UK and a thought-provoking poem about Sandwood Bay.

I joined the John Muir Trust when the late Richard Gilbert announced its formation in High magazine. I tried to find the books of John Muir, but had to order them from America in pre-Internet days. None were published in the UK.

As I read I marked passages before approaching the English mountaineering publisher, the late Ken Wilson, to make an anthology. He offered to publish the eight major books in one volume as John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books (Diadem, in the USA The Mountaineers, 1992). These are now available as individual e-books and paperbacks, with my new individual introductions, from Vertebrate Publishing. In 1996 Ken asked me to put together John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings (Baton Wicks, The Mountaineers, 1996). 

When the Trust bought Sandwood Bay [1993] I walked in along the cliffs to its south with the Lake District landscape painter Julian Cooper and produced the attached poem, originally written for a Trust competition titled 'The Heart of the Wilderness'.

Sandwood Bay

Where is the heart of the wilderness?
Where is the wilderness of the heart?

Is it here among the marram grass
sitting in the dunes at Sandwood Bay

watching snails after rain, slowly heaving 
their heavy shells along grass stems?

Or is it the way people walk across
the sands, slowly, talking little,

taking something into themselves:
the bright light on flat water;

the misted rain, again, drifting
across the far yellow strand;

a white patch on the sea under
that single bubble of white cloud?

These are signs of a pulse
in the wilderness of the heart,

not the arteries of connection
to the heart of the wilderness.

John Muir, here, would hear
the way the sound of sand,

sucked back through the teeth
of the tide, leads to the moon.

To find the wilderness of the heart
is to ask the urgent questions: Why

the sun’s so strong now, the winters
so wet now? Why the seas are rising?

Why low islands will shrink
like the skylark’s song, 

like the oyster beds, like corncrake and cod?
Why it’s not so simple even as orchids

rising radiant from the bog of decay,
or the beach dead feeding flies in the sun?

At the very heart of the wilderness
there would be no wilderness of the heart,

no journey, no visions, no questions.
Hearts would pump as one, like tides.

(c) Terry Gifford

[Previously published as ‘Flightless’ in Terry Gifford's eighth collection of poetry - A Feast of Fools (2018)]

Shells at Sandwood

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