Upon my transfer to Sussex University, I found Robert Cowen’s Common Ground a particularly comforting read. After nearly a year out from academic study, I was finally going back into the trials and tribulations of student life. Cowen’s personal story of moving ‘up north’ and into the unknown resonated with me. We were both in a sense on the verge of something very new and exciting, yet equally and unmistakably daunting. The more I read, however, the more I saw that Common Ground was something more than a simple tale of moving sticks. It’s the story of discovery and his subsequent love affair with a patch of land outside his home in Yorkshire.
His new inhabitance on the brink of two clearly defined spaces, town and country, brings him to an obsess over this ‘edge-land’. Cowen delves into this newly-found place, tracking foxes prowling their promontories, listening keenly to birds and their migrations and generally becoming overwhelmed by the natural beauty he was surrounded by. He even sleeps in his ‘edge-land’ and comes to know it better than anyone could ever know a place. His attachment to his new home allows him to embark on a personal voyage within himself, with this feeling of peace eventually alleviating his initial feelings of suffocation and unfamiliarity.
It may seem strange, but I was inspired. If Cowen could find solace in the landscape surrounding him, why couldn’t I.
Re-reading the first chapter, Cowen details his first encounter with the ‘common ground’ he comes to obsess over. He writes:
‘With the cold, clear descending dark came euphoria; it prickled my neck and released the atom-deep sensation of otherworldliness. It was the blur of joy and terror felt when facing something prior to and greater than the self…’
I read the passage again. The words hit hard and I felt as if I had touched or at least grasped a way to clear my own doubts and concerns. For so long as a student at Birmingham I had felt suffocated. My studies had consumed me, especially in the gloom of the winter months. Losing sleep, ruminating over different structures despite being mid-essay, obsessing over what to include and what not to, debating whether I’d answered the question… I essentially lost myself to a plague of constant worry. This is a feeling that is too common amongst University students, especially with the stress of deadlines and essays looming. Your life can slowly just become a mountain of papers.
Reading the passage Turning Time I found myself transfixed upon its meaning. Worries about transferring to university and January exams became trivial and unimportant. Cowen’s writing is a call back to a more conscious life, a life more directly tuned to being more ‘fully in the moment’, a life in direct opposition to one of constant worry. Problems and desires are washed away when we look at the importance of the landscape around us.
Cowen’s exploration of his ‘edge-land’ teaches us the importance of patience and acceptance. Discussing his own experience waiting for news from his wife after finding out there were complications with the birth of his unborn son, he describes a miraculous experience of being suddenly greeted by a squadron of swifts, fresh from their arduous voyage from Africa. They bestow within him ‘a kind of day to day benevolence’ and come from ‘where you least expect; when you most need it’. Cowen’s sheer passion and excitement at this incredible encounter with nature stirs something within me. I feel re-centered. Yes, this is what’s important, not getting overly stressed about exams.
Once I delved into Cowen’s argument that nature reflects life’s own ‘perpetual flux’, I saw that I could accept such change. I was able to start university again and live in the moment. I knew those worries would change and I could focus on other things as time goes by. Things always change. What seems important one week, you can laugh at the next for its triviality.
Cowen will allow you to transport yourself to a place elsewhere, a place away from doubt. With almost every student being familiar with the tendency to overwork or overthink, Cowen successfully puts our problems into perspective, allowing us to focus upon something more important than our worries; that is the world around us.
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