Saturday, February 23, 2013

Threshold

I think that I have heard voices in the margins of the fields at dawn and at dusk. There may be singing in the space between the gusts of wind; an old country song of love and destiny, sung high and sweet. At times, a child's voice joins in, when she knows the words, when the tune is familiar. Sometimes, I imagine I can hear laughter in the hollow by the spring, although the fields are always empty when I cross.

I walk this field so many times: at first light, when frost hardens the earth and stills the water in the spring; in the fading light of late afternoon, when the westering sun settles into a bank of cloud and the colours are flushed from the land. It is a place almost as familiar as my own garden; a hundred yards or so from the village, through a gate at the top of the lane, bordered by old hawthorns and a few stately ash trees. I never see people here; the field is always silent, except for the wind in the trees and the bleat of distant sheep.
As I cross, I notice the land rising and falling beneath my feet, like waves on the ocean caught in mid-swell. These are the remnants of an ancient strip farming system; a medieval pattern of ridges and furrows which marked each family's strip of land. As I look around the edges of the field, I begin to notice abandoned tracks, the stumps of hedgerows which break the surface like a scar beneath the skin, gateways closed by wire fences. With imagination, it is possible to see the land differently, to imagine a time when the soil was worked for food by all the families in the village; a time when fields were not empty, or home to a few vacant-looking sheep, but were full of people, women and children too, tilling and sowing, hoeing and thinning. I can imagine the lane which leads from the village full of life at first light, the chatter echoing from the wall of the barns, the gateways dimpled with the tiny footprints of the children. I picture the spring at the bottom of the field edged with worn stones, full of clear water; the lane rutted with the tracks of a cart in the damp earth. It seems as though it is another world.

The signs of this other world, I realise, are all around me. Traced across the hills are the ribbed lines of ancient walls which would have bounded fields far smaller than they are today. Gateposts, abandoned amongst the rushes like stately megaliths, hint at the complex field patterns which existed before the enclosure of larger and larger fields, the loss of the land from the common people of the villages, the need for larger areas to raise sheep. With the loss of these small fields, the dynamics of agriculture shifted to the production of wool for mills in the south of the county, rather than the growing of food for a hungry rural population. The chatter and laughter would have died from the hills, the children’s' footprints hardened in the drying mud.
As I pass these gateways, abandoned by time and the lack of people who now use the fields, I think of stories from my childhood in which a liminal space – a wardrobe, a doorway, a garden gate – gave entry to another world, a place where time passed differently, where the laws of daily life were suspended. These were worlds in which wicked witches cast spells of ice on the land, or in which hidden gardens sprung to life at midnight. They were places which were magical, enchanted, elysian. I think of these images as I step through abandoned gateways on the open hills, feeling a tug of memory as I run my hands along the tall slates which were drilled by hand to take the rough iron gate hinges. With each passing, I pause for longer in these places where time seems to pass slowly, where ghosts can be heard singing their way to work in the fields, like voices heard on the threshold of sleep; lucid, distant, haunting.
 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Scavenger, Emperor


He is calling again from the field below the lane. In the muddied dusk of evening, I hear his plaintive shriek across the surface of the wind; insistent, hopeful: peeoow, peeoow. He will be down there now, quartering the sedge, tilting into the breeze with a flex of his primary feathers, turning his eye – bigger then mine, sharper, less distorted with age – across the land with practised patience. He will not know that I am looking for him.
His days revolve around the search for food. He is catholic in his scavenging, opportunist; happy to take voles or shrews, frogs in season, carrion when he can find it, when the stench of death is carried on the spring breeze. He rarely hunts. Other, smaller birds are a distraction; larger mammals too fast, too heavy. He chooses the quick catch, the idle pounce.
I have been watching him for months, trying to understand his days. When the westerly rains shadow the fields, I see him hunched in the tree like an old gentleman in a dun-coloured overcoat, patiently waiting out the shower, folded into himself, brooding. The rain sheds from his feathers like mercury.
When the frost lies thick on the fields, I have seen him in the early morning hunkered on the wire in a stillness of waiting. He makes no movement until mid-day, waiting for the air to thaw, letting his leaden wings warm in the pale light of the sun. These days he knows will be hard, the ground stilled and firm, his prey burrowed into their winter holes, waiting for the sun to return. He knows how important it is to conserve energy, to stay on this wire and wait for the food to arrive. He is an expert at waiting.
He tolerates the sparrowhawk like a tribal elder sighing at the antics of the youngsters; part-jester, part-hooligan. The sparrowhawk stays low among the trees, nimble on its wingtips, chasing a different prey. He has no time for its speed and grace, its short-term game. The peregrine which nests in the nearby quarry he acknowledges, however, as though the two of them have a grudge that neither has forgotten. They share the same space of sky, but at different times, avoiding each other's eye.
Last summer, I began to notice a female, too, in these same lanky ash trees. She calls and he comes, ghosting low over the tips of the trees, power and grace in his wings like a withheld anger. The crows and jackdaws birl up to meet him from the trees and chatter at his tail. He jinks away with insouciance, knowing that this is a game, knowing that they will tire of the chase, knowing that he is emperor of the fields. The jackdaws chatter of victory and spill back into the trees while he follows the call of his mate. They share this territory now, he and the female, although I have not yet found their nest, hidden in one of the ivy-clad ashes which line the lane. I imagine them raising their young in this coming spring: the rituals of the evening hunt; the way to fly at dusk as though these fields are part of the domain; the limits of the territory; the power that comes from patience.
I hide under ash trees in the fading light and listen to his call on the evening breeze. I think of other buzzards, other territories beyond the limits of my village, but none that I know as intimately as this one, none I regard with such fraternal forbearance, none that seem to match the patterns of my own footsteps as I walk these fields steeped in winter's rains. His piercing call measures the pace of my steps: peeoow, peeoow, and I feel his presence over my shoulder like a shadow, like an admonition.




Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chiaroscuro



As I leave the stream behind and start the climb towards the ridge of mountains at its head, the afternoon is already thickening to dusk. The sun has been shining, after days in which the mountains have been hidden by cloud, their snow-covered lower slopes rising into the grey like a warning, or like a promise. The snow is days old; it has hardened to a thick crust and makes a crunching sound beneath my feet, like sugar crystallised in a jar.
The head of the valley above me is split by a broad line of shadow which is edging higher as the sun descends below the western ridge. Above me, the lure of sunlit slopes; below, the darkness of the valley, the aubergine tangle of heather darkening the sides of the stream.
Moving into stripes of sunlight, I see that the glittering surface of the snow is pitted with footprints: the asymmetric pattern of the hare; a fox with its tail bobbing behind at each step, a faint brush stroke between the prints; and the tiny dimples of a shrew, barely breaking the surface of the snow, its thin toes splayed against the cold. Mine seem so clumsy in comparison, an intrusion in the remote world of this upper valley, a stranger in this world of birds and wild animals. I follow the steps of the fox for some distance, meandering between tufts of heather and rock outcrops, pausing now and then to pounce, or perhaps just to jump for joy on this day of so much brightness.
As I emerge from shadow onto the sunlit top of the mountain, like a diver breaking the surface for air, a word comes into my mind. Chiaroscuro: the interplay between darkness and light; the contrast which makes a portrait complete; the denseness of shadow which makes the sunlight so pure and brilliant; the days of darkness without which the sunlight would seem banal, mundane. Our lives are shaped around these contrasts, these shifts of mood, this dance of light and shadow which defines mountain regions, the way that our moods can shift from sombre darkness to brilliant clarity in the space of a day.
As I leave the summit and start down the long ridge homewards, four ravens gust from the shelter of the ridge and spill across the mountainside beneath me; dark shapes etched on the pale snow, their voices dark, harsh notes scratched on the peerless blue of the afternoon. They circle and dip in the steely breeze, like fragments blown in the wind, before settling once more amongst the rocks and heather. Further along the ridge, I see a single one which has risen again into flight and is coasting the updraughts of chill air just above me, my tutelary spirit, my reminder of the darkness that makes the day complete. Below me, the valley is already steeped in shadow; the river glows like a thread of gold in the last reflected light of the sun.