(james benedict brown) on the road

The shelter belt

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 25 December, 2007

Glimpsed from a moving train, this line of bare trees along a remote road reminded me of something I had seen online a few days earlier. A young architectural practice in Alberta has supplemented an as-yet-unpublished website with a blog about the development of their company. You can read about the company at Starting Shelterbelt, or perhaps by doing what I did and cross-referencing this blog’s post category of ‘Edmonton’ with theirs. The company takes its name, and the blog takes its header image from a line of trees somewhere just off the highway between Edmonton and Calgary.

I saw these trees in the depths of the windswept Cambridgeshire Fens. It is that time of the year to retrace my well trodden ‘steps’ along the slow and winding cross-country train that runs between Liverpool and Norwich, collecting me en route at Sheffield and depositing me at Thetford. I didn’t have to change trains at Ely this time, staying on board the crowded and tatty two carriage Sprinter train all the way, watching the rolling countryside of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire slip away, and the flatter agricultural landscape of Cambridgeshire emerge. When Norfolk and Suffolk appear, the train follows a path more or less along the country border for a while, with one on the left and one on the right. Since I first started taking this train there has been a re-organisation of passenger train franchises, so my train will soon change colour and already has ceased to stop at the grim little town of Brandon. Brandon is in Suffolk, but the station is in Norfolk, just inside the boundary of the country in which I spent much of my childhood.

A day or two has passed, and I am hidden away beneath the warm and aromatic eaves of home. The kitchen has become a sensory hub; scents and smells permeate the whole house and collect up here beneath rainy Velux windows. The living room is no longer decorated with torn wrapping paper, but side tables and sofas are now laden with new books and Christmas treats. In between meals we retreat to our most comfortable spot to read the books we have just given others and to muse on whether or not it’s too early in the day for a Christmas tipple (it never is).

On the recommendation of a greatly trusted acquaintance, I’m reading the paperback Solitude by Anthony Storr, a fellow old boy of ‘the other place’. It provides delightful and well argued justification for the questioning of the psychoanalytic assumption that all human psychology depends on the interaction of humans with others. We are, it seems, quite adept at confounding Freud and being extremely content on our own.

As an accompaniment to this book and to my occasional online sorties, I’ve been listening to the three hour long documentaries of Glenn Gould that form The Solitude Trilogy. At this seasonal period of retreat and contemplation, I have withdrawn from the bigger and louder scene, and quietly consider the rapidly recurring concept of solitude. It seems appropriate, perhaps even dramatically so. A line of trees noticed from my moving train and the sounds of a train rumbling north to Churchill (overlaid by Gould with the counterpoint-ing voices of his interviewees) returns me in spirit to the frozen north.

Seasons greetings to everyone who finds the time and perhaps even solitude to read this. I’m thinking of you all today, and hoping you find the peace and quiet that today should bring.

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