Settling – part II

Part of feeling at home is finding familiarity in a place.  Recognising the way the sunrise blazes over the brow of a hill, or the path the setting sun takes as it gilds the land.  Knowing that when the sky turns a certain colour and there is a taste of rain in the air, the rainbows will appear like spotlights on the hills.  Hearing the excited bray of Wilbur and Eddie in the morning because it is time for breakfast.  And it is knowing that you are recognised as part of the landscape.  When the songbirds in the garden no longer mind your presence and fly around regardless.   When the song of the wind moans a familiar tune.

But it isn’t only familiarity that makes me feel part of a landscape.  To find my place I have to travel into the heart of it.  To follow an uncertain path to see where it will take me.  To study a map to find its layers of history.  To feel the lay of the land beneath my feet and breathe its scent into my nostrils.  The land requires effort and in that effort I find some of its secrets.

A stile bathed in sunlight leads me into the woods.  There is meant to be a footpath here, but there is no evidence of it.  No groove of earth worn bare by feet, no disturbed vegetation where others have passed.  This place is overgrown by brambles and bracken, the trees moss-crusted and damp.  A rudimentary wooden bench is rotting in the midst of the trees.  If there is a path, it is well hidden, so I make my own, downhill through the undergrowth, steadying myself on the trees.  I hear the burn before I see the peaty brown rush.  And there, in the middle of this forgotten wood, on this forgotten stream, a waterfall spills its secrets to the trees.

Walking back uphill, crackling twigs and rustling vegetation, I disturb a hare.  It gazes at me for a moment before tearing away through the bracken.  I don’t really feel comfortable here.  I’m too noisy, too obtrusive.  I return to the wooden bench.  Too far gone to sit on, but I lean against it to rest.  The rush of the waterfall persists.  Sunlight spears the canopy.  And perhaps because I’m now still and no longer being a disturbance the wood seems to come to life around me.  A veil lifts and suddenly there are clouds of insects dancing in the sunlight.  The wood shimmers with the movement of tiny beings.  When I leave it behind and rejoin the more trodden path, I feel like some small thing has been given to me.

I begin again at a crossroads, those most magical of places, protected by Hecate herself.  Here is a more well-trodden path.  Grooves of worn stone where vehicles have passed, a stripe of grass in the centre.  Drystone walls on each flank.  Past fields of cattle and sheep that regard me with eyes full of challenge, until I reach a gate, held shut by turquoise twine.  An unremarkable threshold of metal and frayed string.  But snaking downwards the path beckons, guarded by hawthorns laden with haws and rowans beginning to turn.  Wizened and windswept, encrusted by lichens, trees that must have guarded this hedgerow for generations.  I ask for safe passage as I descend the steep path.

At the bottom, the path branches left and darkens.  A tangled wood and the faint sound of the river.  A track of uneven cobbles.  The scent of damp stone and rotting vegetation.  Unexpectedly there is a cottage here.  The crossing cottage.  A remnant of an old railway line that once passed through.  It is tucked in a fork in the track, shielded by trees.  A lonely home, inhabited but with little sign of life.  A home not easy to reach or to leave.  A home on the edge of things, or perhaps in the heart of them.

And then I am at the bridge I have been steering towards.  There is no fanfare.  Only a small wooden marker pointed the way.  I walk onto it without knowing, at first, that I have done so because it seems almost to grow out of the land.  A hump-backed bridge that has been enfolded by nature.  The grey stone is whitened by lichens, the floor of the bridge carpeted in grass.  Trees grow out of its cracks.  Another forgotten place.  A gate with a rusted chain bars entry to the track on the other side.  A stile leading down to the river has collapsed.  The bridge is the end of the line.  Below, the river is majestic, a giant sibling to the forgotten burn, but today, I can’t reach it.

It is difficult not to think of layers of time, layers of place.  Does anyone ever cross the bridge anymore except the farmer who works the land?  Does anyone ever stand here and gaze the length of the river?  Once, trains passed nearby daily and the adjacent fields were quarry lands.  Once, this might have been a well-travelled route.  And I wonder if this is why this landscape feels like a challenging place.  The hills are crossed with many paths a person could take and relatively few people to take them.  No wonder many of them seem forgotten.  But if this bridge is forgotten, it is not unwelcoming.  The moment I passed through the gate, the path willed me down towards it.  Rather than feeling like an end point, it feels like a destination, where you are welcome to pass some time.

Now the hills are behind me.  I have returned to the landscape I call home.  A place where the skies aren’t so wide, the land not so open.  I will remember the comfortable face of the hills: rainbows, donkeys, the song of the wind.  But I’ll also remember the forgotten places.  They don’t need my attention to exist.  My absence means nothing to them.  But the memory of them will persist, because in its hidden spaces, a landscape is truly itself.

Settling

This is a place of rowdy winds and gaping skies.  There are few trees on these scoured hills so the wind howls and moans unfettered across the landscape.  The sails of wind turbines peek over a nearby hill, spinning in the current.  It is a place where footpaths appear to lead to the sky.  A place of cloud-shadow, where giants throw their shades on the hills like cast off skins.  When it rains, the sky glowers gunmetal and the hills fade into a blurred mist.  In the darkness, the moon is a huge orange globe.

What are the spirits of this place? A brooding horse, forged from horseshoes, guards the threshold and the horses in the fields are aloof, showing no interest in passers by.  Blackbirds lurk in the hedge, furtive with unseen fluttering.  A quiet chirrup comes from something hidden in the long grass.  Sheep complain in the distance.  This seems a lonely place.  A place where the inhabitants are reluctant to reveal themselves.

It takes time to settle into a new landscape.  I had hoped that I would arrive and feel myself exhale into glorious isolation, away from the cares of the commonplace.  But I should have known better.   I’m unsettled, uncomfortable – not physically, but because I don’t yet fit.  My first night is haunted by sleeplessness.  I watch the moon become smaller, higher and brighter as it scales the sky and I long for dawn to come.

In my impatience to leave the world behind, I forgot that you must feel yourself into a place.  It isn’t about the prosaic dos and don’ts.  Those things are necessary, but they aren’t what’s important.  What’s important is to come to terms with the essence of a landscape.  We often assume our right of belonging.  We may dislike a place, but we tell ourselves that is the fault of the place, not us.  But there are places in which we don’t belong at all, and some that make us work hard for that belonging.  I will be here only a short time, but it is only after I open myself up to it and let it know my intentions that it will decide if I’m welcome or not.  I must meet it on its own terms to feel at home here.

Eventually, the land will begin to reveal itself to me.  To give a hint of insight into its secrets.  And it’s then, after a few unsettling days, that I discover this is a place of rainbows.  Huge rainbows at the bookends of the day, that spring vibrantly from the land and span its hills.  Thresholds of sorts, allowing a way in to the landscape.  I discover that this is also a place of swooping swallows and chattering songbirds – the whirr of feathers and bob of tails.  Where a robin serenades the dusk from a nearby willow and the bray of donkeys vibrates the morning.  It is a place where the sky is lit up by a billion stars and where the wind sings an elegy through gaps in drystone walls and across the hills.  This is not an easy landscape, but if I listen I will find my place in it.