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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Bearing Witness

bear witness that there is a Way of Life that does not depend on the abundance of the things possessed
Quaker Faith & practice, 23.61

On the train north as the sky flushed pale and translucent, as it does in the space before the darkening of the evening. On a copse of ash trees, harsh against the sky, a plume of rooks billowed into unsteady flight, their final turning before snickering down to roost; the noisy, familiar prelude to an autumn night. I watched until the train turned from view, trying to remember the printed shape their bodies made against the sky, feeling blessed to have witnessed this moment. On the seat opposite mine, a young woman jabbed irritably at the keyboard of her laptop; a man whose tie had loosened during the journey still chattered into his mobile phone, wearing that vacant look that people have when their minds are elsewhere, locked in some office difficulty, some problem which will disturb their evening. I noticed no-one else staring from the window.
I was reminded of a passage I read recently by Kathleen Jamie, in which she describes a friend telling her of a time he saw hundreds of geese flying above the city streets of Edinburgh. 'And not one person looked up!' he said, 'Not one!'. It is as much as many of us can do now, to look up.
I was thinking about that moment with the rooks as I took the bus home from the railway station. The darkness had come upon the sky, like an ink stain bleeding through a sheet. Above the ridge of Helvellyn, a single star hung like the last fishing boat left beyond the harbour wall, a lonely light in a darkening ocean. The snow covering on the hills glowed in a memory of sunshine, reluctantly letting go of its light whilst all else around had succumbed to night. I sometimes have the feeling, of an evening, that the world has exhaled a weary breath, and has now paused in its preparations for night. It is the loveliest time of the day.
Seeing these moments in the slow turning of the world fills me with a sense of sadness and responsibility. There are moments we witness which seem so suffused with meaning, so fragile and transient, that I believe our only response can be to watch, to listen, to hold the moment in our minds for as long as we can. I think of the phrase to bear witness; as though to see something of such painful beauty can be a burden, a responsibility, that we must carry on behalf of others. It is a phrase which has two distinct meanings; both to prove (to demonstrate, to show clearly that something is the case) and to attest (to give one's solemn word of the truth). Both of these are implicit when we are confronted with the beautiful, the numinous, the unexplainable. It is as if we have been given some fragile, precious object to hold, and which we are required to carry through strange, perilous lands.
So this, now, is what I will do. I will bear witness to the monochrome beauty of a winter evening on the hills, to the poetry of a single star in a cobalt sky, to the mystery of birds flushing from leafless trees. There are events and knowledge too vast for communication, too complex to be reduced to words on a page. I will bear witness to a world slipping from our view like the disappearing margins of an arctic ice flow.
There is something of import in this responsibility, something Quakerly and dutiful in this need to see, to tell and to preserve. We have become like a tribe of people whose surroundings have changed, or perhaps we have wondered too far from our familiar hunting grounds and have strayed into a dangerous place. We have with us the artefacts of our elders which we must hold and protect, and which we are required to carry, vulnerable and delicate, through a hostile place peopled with strange creatures of the night, under a sky darkening with the uncertainty of perpetual evening.