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.
 

10 comments:

  1. Beautifully evocative, Ian, and so resonant for me. Through the window I can see the lines of long-abandoned terracing rising to the very tops of the mountains, dating from before the Greek Civil War when this village held 2,500 people instead of the 150 who live here now. They were built by hand and turned by donkey, and each time I'm up there something of that time whispers up through the stone and grasses. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    Best wishes,
    Julian

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    1. Thanks Julian. As an aside, I saw a fantastic exhibition of early 19th century watercolours and engravings of Greek antiquities and landscapes today, at the British Museum. Some interesting points made there about the origins of the Greek civil war. In comparison, my own landscapes are positive newcomers!

      Ian

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    2. Thanks for the tip, Ian. Sounds like a really interesting exhibition to have a look at. Can you let me know what it's called? I'll be in London for a week or so at the end of the month and might very well try to see it if it's still on.

      Cheers,

      Julian

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    3. The exhibition, which is free and well worth a visit, can be seen at http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/in_search_of_classical_greece.aspx

      It's on till 28 April

      Ian

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  2. Lovely writing Ian. I've tweeted it.
    Miriam Darlington,
    author of 'Otter Country'
    (I'm speaking at Words by the Water in Keswick Tuesday 5th March!)

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    1. Thanks, Miriam. I'm disappointed that I won't be around to see you at WBTW on tuesday - I'm speaking reading there tomorrow (monday) as part of the 'New Writing Cumbria' event. I hope it goes really well for you - it's a lovely festival

      best wishes

      Ian

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  3. Thank you for posting this fine, touching work. It makes my world bigger.

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  4. Wonderful words and pictures. I love your hints of the magical passages, a liminal quality of folk tales and mischief, and of time slipping away.

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  5. Lovely words and images. That hint of mythology and gateways to other places is very strong. The history is these liminal paths is very alluring.

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    1. Hi Matt

      Thanks for dropping in on this post, having so many resonances with your wonderful recent writings on 'Liminal City'. Looking forward to reading more of your work

      thanks

      Ian

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