20 August 2018
Living in rural Northumberland is a conversation with the place. Its landscape, with its mesmeric soundtrack, engages you inescapably. It claims your attention, it speaks with a voice you cannot ignore, it acts on you and it intervenes in your life. It takes over.
In one of my earliest incursions into this magic domain, back in the summer of 2005, I remember a late-night drive up the A1 and then west, past Rothbury. The moonlight was flooding every visible object, moving or inanimate, and it was saturating the air with such intensity that it seemed to make a sound. Wherever you looked there was life, throbbing life. The landscape on both sides of the road was a riot of activity. There were the creatures you knew, some of which you could actually see - rabbits, lambs - but you could also sense other forms of life you did not know, could not see and could not put a name to. They were plural, diverse, and collective. Elves? Giants? Spirits? Tutelary deities? I didn’t know, but they spoke to me. It was not an aural hallucination I was having, but it seemed so clear that I was in no doubt as to what I was hearing.
‘Beware’, they said to me. ‘You enter this kingdom on sufferance. You may be wheedling your way in by means we had not foreseen, but this is not your territory. You watch your step, because we will be watching you.’ I noted the warning, and I drove on, on towards the magic. I entered this fantastical land with full awareness of my alienness and of the conditional nature of my presence here.
And yet, at every step from then on I felt drawn in. This realm of haunted hills, giants and fairies beguiled me. If they were not so imposing and otherworldly, I might say that they were playing with me. In spite of the forbidding tone of their warnings, they also called out for me. I could hear their intoxicating chorus among the trees, behind the hay bales or by the river, on sunny days, on balmy evenings, on moonlit nights or in the rage of storms.
Did I watch my step, as commanded? I did, I am fairly sure on that. I gazed on the landscape with awe and affection, I loved my loved ones to extremes of devotion, I respected their elders, dead and alive, and I cared for the young. I even worked to promote the music of this land, in ways I am touched to see still echoing. I remained alert to the voices of the land, even though soon louder ones inside the house would drown them out for much of the time. One soloist bird, whose name I never had the chance to find out, sang every May and June a playfully melancholy solo with variations, at dawn and at dusk. Five lovable cats called, wailed and growled with an expressivity better than any human’s. A dog sneezed with pleasure. The Northumbrian pipes resounded with a depth that awakened every giant, saint and tree that ever stood on this land. How I loved all this.
One reverse of fortune was the hill. An already narrow passage separating the hill from the back of the house began to get narrower. This seemed to be the result of rainfall and erosion. Rocks and mud would build up on the ground, requiring work with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. I did this a number of times, but before long the rocks and mud would be there again, in ever larger quantities. This became a battle between a man and a hill, and the hill was winning. Eventually the passage disappeared under a heavy mass of rocky soil which was pressing right against the house. I lost peace of mind and many nights’ sleep about this. K was always calmer about things of this kind. Eventually inspiration struck and a strategy was devised, involving diggers shovelling dirt and rocks up from the top of the hill. This made it possible to remove the accumulated matter and to correct the angle of the slope to prevent further erosion. We planted various plants and trees to give the hill cohesion and we built reinforcements at the bottom, at a generous distance from the house. The expense was high, but the problem was solved, and the battle won.
Life went on, happier than before. Kids grew, dog sneezed, cats were born, pipes resounded, music was composed.
The floods of the winter 2015-16 were the second reverse of fortune. We got off lightly considering what was happening elsewhere in the area, but the situation was worrying nonetheless. My error was to think I could fight back again. A battle between a man and a river? It seems comical now. I followed the runoff routes, I studied the river’s behaviour, I called in experts for advice. We implemented as much of the advice as seemed practicable to make the house safer. The fact was, it was a freak year and nothing remotely like that ever happened again, and, judging by statistics, it seems safe to say it won’t. But the unequal fight shook the roots I had been putting down in the place. It took us a couple of years, this place and me, to resume a normal dialogue. Come the summer of 2018 the relationship had been fully restored. The season started blissfully. Day after day in May and June, the word ‘paradise’ was hard to avoid when describing the warmth, the brightness, the beauty of the place.
Then came the third reverse of fortune. It was much more catastrophic than the first two, and this time I made the opposite choice: I did not fight back. I took what came with a resigned fatalism. Was that another error, a graver one which may have cost me everything? Did I have a choice? I am trying to figure that out. Nothing more can be said here. Only that the warnings heard thirteen years back seem to have been fulfilled, and that this time I seem to have lost my place in paradise. I can imagine the wise old men, the giants and the elves shaking their heads. “I always knew it”, they will be saying. “Once an alien, always and alien”. But I knew otherwise, and I still do. I am the only one who knows, and my lips are sealed.
Voices, deities, creatures, spirits: you know I have revered you. With all the respect due to you, I do not accept your verdict. Your paradise is my territory. Its soil is sprinkled with my sweat and my tears. I put all my energies into loving its occupants and caring for them, stealing also some time to sing your praises with new music. I lived and worked in this paradise with intensity of commitment. I came into it motivated by love, and I was true to it. Even where I failed I was doing my best to contain worse damage. I do belong in this paradise. It does belong in me. It will never leave me, and in my heart I will never leave it.
I thank this blessed land for the beauty showed, the inspiration given and the lessons taught. I thank The Farmer for his friendship. I thank the other local figures who helped with some practicalities and who enlivened things with their character. I thank those wonderful cats and dog that enriched life with their playfulness and their readiness to receive and give love.
And yes, above all, I thank that very small nucleus of the main protagonists in this story, the ones who were and are my world. Strange to be addressing you in this way. You mean everything to me. Your safety and your happiness are what I most want in life, and I will not stop working for them. The last word in this epic has not been written. I have faith. Paradise lost can be regained, and for me, ultimately, paradise is wherever you are. Meanwhile, my love and my loyalty are with you, always.