Thursday, December 8, 2016

The boy in the Hollow

It has taken me a long time to write again. There is a story I won't bother telling, of two years during which all confidence, all desire to write evaporated. I grew increasingly wary of the blank page, the knowledge that I had nothing to say, nor words with which I could say it.
But I could walk. I spent as much time as possible on the hill, in all weathers. I tried to see the land clearly again, to feel the assuredness of the ground beneath my feet, oblivious to the rhythms of language which pressed insistently at my shoulder. And gradually I told myself stories to understand what was happening.

I grew up in a village in the flatlands. The ancient lanes of the village tangled around the church with its tall thirteenth-century spire, its mottled colours of pale, fragile limestone. I learned that the spire was in a style known as 'English Perpendicular', without knowing what this meant, although it seemed to carry a stern, protestant image of the rightness of the Church, and smelled somehow of beeswax floor polish and musty prayer books.
That spire marked the lodestone of our world; the only tall feature in a flat land. From it, we began our childhood explorations of brooks, field edges, copses of slim trees; the unkempt margins of the land. We drew maps, named each feature as though it was part of a world we had made specifically for our enjoyment, imagined our ramblings as mythic journeys into unexplored lands. We were given a freedom almost unknown in our modern era, staying out late into summer evenings in our mud-spattered bliss; I can remember scrubbing my hands and knees in a basin of soapy water in the front garden, too filthy even to come indoors to wash.
The world of a child, I realise, is shaped like the branches of a tree: each known path from home splits and splits again as new ways are discovered, as the net of knowledge is spread wider and wider. My mental geography of the land around our village extended to perhaps a mile or two, but it became increasingly textured with detail: the rounded cobbles which loosened from the clay banks of the stream; the knee-length grasses wet against my legs in the ungrazed meadow; the umbellifer-headed wilderness of the abandoned railway line, fading into fields of barley and wheat.
In the land behind the village school we discovered a hollow; a shallow crease in the soft folds of the land, at the base of which a small beck flowed into a brick-lined trough. It had been built from those dense blocks known as 'blue bricks', but which in fact have the dull iridescence of a beetle's wing. Perhaps it was used for washing cattle, or as a source of water for some long-forgotten agricultural practice, but to our nine-year-old minds it was a Roman baths, an ancient ritual site, a never-discovered archaeological prize.
Standing by the edge of the pond, overhung by willows and screened from the sight of the church spire, I experienced a sense of mystery that was both thrilling and unsettling; a desire to know and not to know, for the land to be explained to me whilst retaining these odd places which did not fit my mental map. On that day, it seems I made a pact with the world which traded mystery for wonder: in which the desire to know must be weighted against the longing for uncertainty. It has been the fulcrum on which my life has balanced ever since.

A few weeks ago, my son and I took a walk across the hills on a day touched with the early signs of autumn; the moor-grass bleached like dried kelp, the air promising of decay. We plan our walks in an impetuous fashion, leaving the path to delve into moss-lined valleys or dense hillsides of untrodden heather. We are drawn to contours rather than footpaths.
Around midday, we rounded the broad spur of a hill which sloped into a deep corrie, penned by tall pillars of crag slicked with the remnants of rain. A bank of shingle hid a mossy hollow which may once have held a small tarn. The wind stilled to a soft breeze. We paused for a while in this still, damp place, listening to the echo of the wind in the crags above. The sense of peace in that place of moss and rocks, hidden by the bigger mountain above, drew us both to an attentive silence. We were waiting, not for anything to happen, but for that sense of nothing happening; being in a place where time passes outside of any human intervention. Somewhere in the distance, the empty hiss of a stream marked the passing of the day, slowly.
I realised afterwards the extent to which I am drawn to these places, these clefts and hollows, valleys and gorges, from some ancient compulsion; a desire to feel small in a big landscape, to feel cradled by the mountains as though held in the folded crease of an arm. To be still in a breathing landscape. To experience a moment of empowering insignificance.

Sorting through some papers and documents at my mother's house during the summer, the house in which I grew up and from which I took those rambles, I found a packet of old photographs from my childhood. They were taken mostly on family holidays; running beside my father along the street of a seaside resort; smiling for the camera in an early school photograph, when the knot of my tie still conformed to regulations; shivering in my swimming trunks on a beach beside my sister, plastic buckets in hands. I realised that, although I could identify the boy in the pictures, I could not recognise him. My memories have become shaped by the person I am now, not the person to whom they happened.

At the age of seventeen, my life shifted away from these flat lands with their muddy becks and disused railways, away to places where I felt more at home, where the landscape spoke to me in ways I would not understand until much later. What I did bring away with me, however, was the sense of wonder which that boy in the hollow experienced on that day some forty or more years ago. It is the place at which the hurrying, explaining mind gives in to wonder; the still point in the turning universe. A prelude to a life seamed with mystery and wonder.