Sunday, March 4, 2012

Landscape as story

In the middle of the day, the glare of the sun is enough to warm the face, the air on these March days having the clarity of fresh-blown glass. It feels as though spring is jostling with winter, in the same way that the first daffodils push through the clumps of snowdrops, the colour of the new season eclipsing that of the old.

I am walking with my son, learning from him the way this landscape shifts and adapts to the change of seasons, his mind alert to the quickness of spring, whilst mine is still mired in the mulch of winter. The curlews are back, we notice; inland from their coastal wintering, pausing in the soft rich earth of these lowlands on their way to summer breeding grounds on the hills. Their trill alerts something in my mind, some sense of how the longer days of spring feel, a strange combination of senses with the sun on my face, the cool scent of the clear air in my nose, the sound of the curlews drifting to land in sedge-filled fields. I watch one come to earth, easing itself onto the ground like an elderly gentleman descending from a railway carriage. It picks across the sedge with school-masterly patience, probing for invertebrates in the mud.
We walk along lanes which, in a week or two, will be butter-rich with celandines. We note features which are only apparent at this slower pace: a pair of slate gate stoups half-buried in the hedgerow, powdered with lichen; the stanchions of an old footbridge at the point where the stream narrows; badger prints in the moist earth. We are teasing stories from the land, trying to understand the ways in which streams emerge from the ground under bluffs of grey rock, the way that this limestone terrain is riddled with the stories of springs and watercourses, the ways in which lanes and footpaths, hedgerows and boundaries have grown almost organically, self-willed over generations. My son's commitment to routine, to simply getting out there in all weather, allows him to notice pattern and change in the shifting behaviour of birds; when the first summer migrants arrive, why the wood was a roosting place last year, but not this. He is learning to read the stories which landscape has to tell.
As we walk the twisting path through the birch wood on our way home, I watch this lean almost-adult who is my son slip through the ferns with a studied ease, a soft awareness which he has learnt from the land, as though this is his natural habitat. I think of Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, developing grand theories in geology from a patient observation of their local strata; of Joseph Banks, taking the skills of observation with him on the Endeavour that he had learnt on his Lincolnshire estate; of Gilbert White, devoted to his Hampshire parish as though it was the whole world. And I realise that a true understanding of the natural world comes only through this opening-out to the possibilities of the land, this willingness to be surprised by the stories it has to tell. It is an approach which my structured scientific mind has had to un-learn; the greatest gift my son has given me, his benediction on my cluttered adult life.

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