Sometimes Eleanor and I go into the woods and look for bears. We haven’t found any yet. Bears, we think, prefer to hide at the far end of lonely paths that temptingly curve out of sight ahead, where the boughs of the trees above reach out and meet, and the shadows thicken. Bears, we think, like to lie in the lee of low trees on the dry, dead leaves where we sometimes find the branches they must have broken, or the stone they surely overturned. Eleanor is determined, but so far unsuccessful in her bear hunting. One day she will not be inclined to believe in the possibility of bears in the hills behind Newtown and I will be a little sad, but for the moment every turn in the path, and every quiet glade seems pregnant with the opportunity to discover the great, suburban bear.
I love walking up in the hills in the forest with Eleanor looking for bears. She asks me questions from time to time, but otherwise there is only the sound of the trees shifting in the wind, or the sudden beating of wings as a bird bursts out of the scrub. At each point where the path splits Eleanor chooses our route before we press on down the paths where broom, gorse and blackberry reach out to brush our legs. She always asks me if you can eat the black seed pods of the broom. I show her the thorns and prickles on the gorse and blackberry and she skirts them cautiously. We stop to watch the bird on the path ahead darting its beak about among the pebbles and skittering from side to side. Walking with Eleanor makes me attentive again to nature; she passes her freshness and curiosity to me.
At home we have been watching Bambi. It is a lyrical movie. There are passages which seem to have been made by artists in love with nature. The attention they have paid to, say, a branch in the corner of a single scene, each leaf picked out, but the whole only part of a frame and passed over as the main action moves elsewhere. There are some wonderful moments in Bambi. A whole sequence constructed around a rain storm; built upon the syncopated rhythms of the rain drops, which are picked out by the voices of a choir that builds visually and aurally to a crescendo of thunder and a deluge before tapering away again to droplets and calm. Another scene where stags plunge across the meadow to the crash of cymbals, or another where Bambi fights another stag which is all painted in blocks of oily colour, and then transforms into an ecstatic dance through the swirling leaves and shimmering, silvery grass.
Eleanor is less interested in all of this, and more in the characters themselves: Bambi awkwardly learning how to walk, or scrabbling about on the ice with Thumper. Whenever Eleanor sees people dancing on TV she says that they are getting married. I never correct her. It should be true that people dance when they love each other. As they dance in Bambi; springing across the meadows.
Until I was in my thirties I disliked Disney and musicals in general, but now I love them. The oldest Disney movies have the most charm. Show White’s first song is so artless and old fashioned it completely wins me over every time I hear it. Pinocchio’s underwater quest for his father, or the early scene in Dumbo where the heavy, muscular forms of men and elephants erect the circus tent – they are moments which are magical, and alive. There is a real sense that artists were at work on these movies, and that they were animating their work with joy, making life more than life, delighting in the possibility of matching movement with colour and song.
And, of course, letting some darkness in. It’s surprising how many Disney movies have fear and death in them, and quite often that death is the death of a parent. It’s something Eleanor always goes quiet for. She watched the death of Simba’s father in the Lion King in still silence. Bambi’s mother dies more discreetly, off screen, and this feels more effective because the dawning loneliness of the child feels more painful and real. Loneliness is right.
Strangely all of this reminds me of the second episode in Kenneth Clark’s documentary series Civilisation called The Great Thaw. Much of that episode is spent talking about the surge of church building and ornate sculpture that came in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Western Europe and ends with him talking about Chartres. “My general impression is that the invention which boiled over in the early twelfth century was self-delighting…. The Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins.” He goes on to quote St Bernard of Clairvaux who was unhappy with this upsurge in highly ornamented churches: “In short there appears on all sides so rich and amazing a variety of forms that it is more delightful to read the marble than the manuscripts and to spend the whole day in admiring these things, piece by piece, rather than in meditating on the Divine Law.”
Clark talks about the great artistry of the stone sculpture and carving done by Gislebertus in the cathedral at Autun. Some of it is work that would have been difficult to see as it was often high, high up on the cathedral walls, but even that work was done with just as much care and love as the pieces near the cathedral floor, or placed grandly over the entrance. Who can now say whether Gislebertus’ every hammer stroke on the chisel butt was animated by a love of God, but it was certainly animated by love and joy in creation. Each of the scenes he created is a complete and vivid moment, but more than that, it feels like it has some laughter in it.
Which is how Bambi feels, or how I feel walking the paths in the hills with Eleanor looking for bears.