The reopening of the Grassic Gibbon Center provides us with the chance to meditate on the meaning of seasons, and spring especially, for Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Gibbon wrote often of the importance of seasonal or meteorological cycles. In his masterpiece Sunset Song, both the narrative and Chris’ development are structured around the divisions of seasonal agricultural labor. The framing matter (“Prelude” and “Epilude”) is titled “The Unfurrowed Field”: a title that calls to mind the tabula rasa or “blank slate” of Aristotle and John Locke. In the “Prelude,” we read of the historical and geographical context which will form the foundation for Chris’ future development. Absent from the “Prelude,” Chris has yet to be “furrowed” by her surroundings and family history. She enters the novel in the first sentence of the first chapter “Ploughing”:
Below and around where Chris Guthrie lay the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks.
Symbolic readings of Chris’ embodiment of the land and Nature begin here, with the protagonist positioned not as subject, but as part of the landscape. This connection is made more explicit as the chapter titles “Ploughing,” “Drilling,” “Seed Time,” and “Harvest” mirror the events of the novel, charting Chris’ sexual awakening and psychological maturation. In “Ploughing” we read of the Guthries’ move to Blawearie, Chris’ schooling, and the family dynamics at play in her childhood. The great unformed (or “unfurrowed”) matter of new life is shaped and molded, ploughed, by the Guthrie environment and Chris’ experiences of childhood. In “Drilling,” we read of the events that prepare Chris for adulthood: her mother commits suicide, Will leaves the family, the attentions of the tink lead Chris into considering her own sexuality, and lastly, her father falls ill. “Seed Time” and “Harvest” see Chris married, delivered of a son, and widowed.
To use Blakian language, Gibbon’s “Song” of innocence or youth in “Ploughing” has transformed into a “Song” of experience and maturity in “Harvest.”
In Sunset Song, early spring is the season of youth, awakened sensuality, and beginnings. For Gibbon, with his emphasis on cycles, spring also implies the juxtaposition of life and death: the death of winter, of one year, leading to the birth of another. Thus, in Gibbon’s fiction, we often find births, beginnings, and awakenings coupled with death, ends, and loss. One such occasion is the vacancy and filling of the position of minister at the Kirk. Old Greig, the long-time minister in Kinraddie, dies in the winter:
But that nineteen eleven December the Manse was empty and had been empty for many a month, the old minister was dead and the new one not yet voted on.
Fittingly, potential new ministers descend upon Kinraddie in spring to try for the pulpit. The first minister preaches in early March. The third preacher to try, Stuart Gibbon preaches soon after; he is settled into the Manse by mid-May. The sermon that wins him the position comes from Song of Solomon and, as befits the spring, touches on sensuality:
It was fair tickling to hear about things like that read out from a pulpit, a woman’s breasts and thighs and all the rest of the things, in that voice like the mooing of a holy bull.
Such a sermon, coming at a time much of the congregation was busy with lambing and calving, and preparing the fields for new growth, must surely speak to a particular seasonal quickening of the blood. It should then come as no surprise to the readers that this spring-appointed minister earns a reputation for promiscuity. The maid at the Manse gossips about the married couple’s active sex life. Cuddiestoun relays a story implying that the minister fell victim to the harvest madness and satisfied himself in the bushes with the Gourdon quean. And, of course, at Chris’ wedding, Gibbon is caught behind a hung sack embracing the maid from the Mains:
“She’d her arms round him and the big curly bull was kissing the quean like a dog lapping up its porridge.”
The new minister is not the only character to bear Gibbon’s springtime associations of death-to-life and awakening sensuality. Notably, Chris’ first real sensual awakening happens in March. She and friend Marget Strachan, on a walk from college, speak of the horror of the morgue, the bodies of paupers awaiting to be cut up by doctors. This sets Chris to thinking of all the natural sensual pleasures one misses out on when one is dead, like the smell of the earth and the sound of the North Sea thunder. She seems to lament their loss and the fleetness of life’s “right things” which prompts Marget to kiss her with “red, kind lips” and to exclaim:
There were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that.
With her sensuality newly awakened by that kiss and her realization of life’s fleeting sensual pleasures, Chris finds herself pausing on her way home. Now, she notices how
. . . lean and keen and wild and clear, the evening ploughed land’s smell up in your nose and your mouth when you opened it, for Netherhill’s teams had been out in that park all day, queer and lovely and dear the smell.
Spring is not really about sex in Sunset Song. After all, most of the actual sex happens during Harvest time. Rather, Gibbon uses Spring and its association with new life, to promote the awakening of humankind to the material or physical beauty and pleasure of the natural world. The pleasure of the natural world may certainly include pleasure in the human body, but Gibbon’s true focus is much less prurient.
When Chris learns of her mother’s suicide, Gibbon once again juxtaposes death with youth and a sensual appreciation of the natural world. Chris learns that Jean had killed herself because she was once again pregnant. Gibbon writes:
So she had killed herself while of unsound mind, had mother, kind-eyed and sweet, remembering those Springs of Kildrummie last of all things remembered, it may be, and the rooks that cried across the upland parks of Don far down beyond the tunnels of the years.
The Springs of Kildrummie refer to the time when Jean was a child living in Kildrummie. Her family was large and her father’s work as a ploughman paid little. Yet, even their circumstances could not dampen the joy she felt in the sensual pleasure of nature.
She was never happier in her life than those days when she tramped bare-footed the roads to the little school that nestled under the couthy hills. And at nine she left the school and they packed a basket for her and she bade her mother ta-ta and set out to her first fee . . . but fine she’d liked it, she’d never forget the singing of the winds in those fields when she was young or the daft crying of the lambs she herded or the feel of the earth below her toes.
She attempts to pass on this particular appreciation and awareness to Chris:
Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.
In his essay “The Land,” Gibbon describes his own sensual memories of some of the “better things” of Jean’s Kildrummie Springs:
Going down the rigs this morning, my head full of that unaccustomed smell of the earth, fresh and salty and anciently mouldy, I remembered the psalmist’s voice of the turtle and instinctively listened for its Scots equivalent–that far cooing of pigeons that used to greet the coming of Spring mornings when I was a boy.
So in this spirit, whether you’ve bidden in the Mearns all your life or are out for a Sunday drive from the big city, I invite you to appreciate the natural world in Springtime. If you are going to get muddy anyway, why not enjoy it? The smell of rain on stone, the feel of newly ploughed up soil, that first bright splotch of new-growth green. Like those prisoners first climbing out of the shadows of Plato’s cave, let us embrace the lights of the natural world and find joy in those “better things.”
From “My Glance is Clear like a Sunflower,” Fernando Pessoa, 1925:
I believe in the World as in a daisy
Because I see it.
But I don’t think about it
Because thinking is not understanding….
The World was not made for us to think about
(To think is to be eye-sick)
But for us to look at and be in tune with….
I have no philosophy. I have senses….
If I speak of Nature, it’s not because I know what Nature is,
But Because I love it, and that’s why I love it,
For a lover never knows what he loves,
Why he loves or what love is….
Loving is eternal innocence,
And the only innocence is not to think….