‘Pathways to Home’ to be featured in first ever TLC Free Reads anthology.

AM Heath TLC QWFA

 

I’m excited to have had an extract from Pathways to Home selected for a first ever TLC Free Reads Anthology, sponsored by A.M. Heath Literary Agency as part of their centenary celebrations. TLC Free Reads is a fantastic scheme offered by The Literacy Consultancy and funded by Arts Council England, “offering free access for low-income and marginalised writers to TLC’s professional editorial services”. It’s supported by 17 regional literature development partners (in my case New Writing South). I’m really looking forward to seeing my work in print alongside 19 other writers, when the anthology is published in the summer.

Return to the River

The man tidying his garden with an electric blower whom I stop to ask for directions is friendly enough, but he doesn’t know the way to the river. It seems a foreign idea to him, to want to “actually go to the river”. I can see it from our new home, our flat in Lewes, the river wending its way through the Ouse Valley – a vast, ever-changing panorama, the green of the low Weald, patchwork of trees and low-lying fields stretching away to a dark line on the far horizon, the grey flint tower of a distant church, the weather changing and great cumulus building in a blue sky, cattle grazing along the lush river banks.

My first sight of the river up close fills me with surprised joy, as if returning to a house one left long ago that had become a faint memory and now laying one’s eyes on it again with a sigh and a realisation, “ah yes, home again”. Warm, late August sunshine and a cool, fresh breeze stirring the tall banks of reed; hawthorne, bramble and rose-hip full of bright berries already; sheep calling to each other – bleating wouldn’t be the right word, too plaintive, rather their calls are guttural and hoarse, as they warily funnel through an overgrown embankment on the other side of the stream at my feet, a side-cutting to the main river; a herd of Red Devon cattle foraging amongst the reeds indifferent to their passing.

How long I have been away – two years but it feels like a lifetime – and now I have come home. These last few weeks have been so busy – working day and night, travelling up and down motorways to distant work sites, moving house – not a moment to spare to stop and go outside, to look and listen. How can anyone live so close and not want, or need, to be by the river, to explore what lies beyond one’s front gate? I can’t understand it. It feels essential to me – this exploring, finding a way to feel more grounded and connected, to be here and now, a being-in-place that only being in and close to nature can give and restore. It’s not that I wish to judge the man with the blower, I only wonder at our apparently fundamental difference in this regard. Perhaps he feels grounded and connected enough, in his work, family, or community, in tending his garden and home at the weekend. Perhaps he doesn’t even think about these things, these needs, and is more the content for it.

Even whilst I write about ‘connecting to nature’ I wince at the separation and difference that implies. How to acknowledge that we’re fundamentally a part of it, our actions, our very existence, inseparable from nature as a whole, and yet at the same time articulate the numerous ways we can feel alienated and disconnected from ‘nature’ as we see and experience it, or the lack of it. This place, this river valley, isn’t just ‘nature’, but human and natural history intertwined – if one needed further evidence beyond the mere presence of people and livestock on these river paths, there is evidence enough on the Environment Agency information board announcing essential work to the flood defences, and in the place-names mentioned – Wiley’s Bridge, Chalk Pit Cut – all signs of industry, commerce, work, community and even human-induced climate change. Without that sense of history, and of ongoing human relations with nature and with place, for both practical purposes and emotional well-being, without that sense of interdependency and co-evolution, ‘nature’ and ‘place’ become mere commodities, experiences for our consumption. The human communities that have helped make them what they are today become mere footnotes to history, marginalised and disenfranchised from the new ecotopia, their labour and their stories invisible. The places we experience as so benign to us today have been shaped by generations of hard labour and industry, by the demands of a growing and changing human population, even by war.

How to convey the inexplicable beauty of the railway track running alongside the river, iron bridges spanning overgrown chalk streams and cuttings, the green belt of trees hugging the chalk ridge that climbs from Offham towards Blackcap? That peculiar juxtaposition of human and natural elements: the chalk track hardened by sun and hoof, the field of pale, drought-borne yellow grasses and white thistle heads gone over and ready to seed, the huge expanse of sky where clouds are building in the thermal draughts of an august afternoon, electric pylons spanning the valley and the hushed wind in the reeds, soothing and whispering? There is a song in my head – The Carpenters, ‘We’ve only just begun, to live … White lace and promises …’. Somehow the promise of the new and tender home I now share with my loved one, of returning here to continue on this journey of learning how to live and care for a place, building attachments and community, seems inextricable from the promise, the hope and the challenge we all face, collectively. We’ve only just begun, to learn how to live …

When I hear the sheep calling by this river in Sussex, a kernel of childhood memory unfurls within me, of being out in the fields in Cornwall with my Dad helping round up the sheep, and no doubt that’s part of what makes this place feel like home to me. Having that sense of connection to our personal, family and collective pasts can help us to not only make meaningful connections to the places where we live and where we go to seek out nature, but also to understand the currents of history running through them, and therefore what their futures may hold. We don’t all have to be sons or daughters of farmers to find that, but if you look hard enough you’ll find evidence in your family story of real, lived experiences and knowledge of land and sea, for wage, livelihood or food to supplement incomes – hunting rabbits, poaching deer, fishing, and growing vegetables, or even for the less bare necessities of adventure, glory and profit. Perhaps, in the span of your own lifetime, it was camping holidays as a child or trips to the seaside that formed those early connections and senses of place.

These are some of the themes I am exploring in ‘Pathways to Home‘ – a book I am writing about my return to my native Cornwall for a year to be a ranger, reconnecting with family and with my childhood home, learning the skills to navigate my search for home as an adult and to more deeply connect to, care for and conserve, land, place and nature. Over the next year I will be seeking to apply these skills back in my adopted home of Sussex – learning about the human history and stories that have helped shaped this landscape of rolling green downs, woody clay Weald and white chalk sea cliffs, as well as actively participating in, and writing about, current conservation efforts in this dynamic and changing environment.

If there are conservation projects that you feel deserve to be written about and shared, stories of people working with and shaping the environment in new ways, or re-inventing old ones, then please do get in touch with ideas via my contact page.

A night of Cornish tales

Come join Cornish writers for an evening of Cornish history and stories at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Saturday 4th August, 6 pm to 7.30 pm. I am delighted to have been invited to read from my story ‘Home Between Sea and Stone’ alongside other contributors to Cornish Short Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing (The History Press). See here for more info!

A Ranger diary: working with nature to reclaim an abandoned mine spoil site in Cornwall

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Winter is the time in the Ranger’s calendar for clearing and cutting back – giving space for new growth and less competitive plants to flourish. Sandy Banks, part of the National Trust-owned Godolphin Estate, was once a dumping ground for mining waste from the Great Work Mine. The powerful dynasty that once resided here, built their wealth on mining the rich lodes of tin and copper. The mine, one of a cluster surrounding Godolphin Hill, employed hundreds of men, women and children. The air would have been full of the noise and smoke of the mine engines, and the stamping and blowing houses where the tin ore was crushed and then smelted. Mined from the late Middle Ages, Great Work last operated in 1938.

Now, on a still day in January, Sandy Banks is almost silent, save for the crackle of the bonfire, the distant bleating and lowing of sheep and cattle on the hill, and the occasional song of the robin that watches us work, following in our footsteps to forage the ground we have disturbed. Under a steely grey sky, we cut and burn gorse. Although it’s bright yellow flowers are a welcome dash of colour at this time of year, left unchecked, it will, like the russet bracken also abundant here, dominate to the exclusion of other less competitive plants and the area will gradually revert to monotonous scrub. The Trust’s vision is to foster and maintain a mosaic of habitats and a diversity of species, including native heathers, and rare lichens that flourish on the heavy metal laden soils. The carpet of silvery white lichen lends this site an ethereal beauty.

It is satisfying work, cutting the gorse, dragging the branches to the edge of the fire. I crawl inside the deepest thickets to cut the trunks near their root, the coconutty smell and sense of enclosure reminding me of the gorse-covered mound where I once built dens as a boy, on a farm not far from here. Beyond this stirring of childhood nostalgia, there is something else; the sense of tapping into something much older and innate –a distant, muscle memory perhaps, of human beings disturbing and shaping the land, through cutting tool and fire, originating far back in human prehistory.

Inertia Creeps, Stillness Speaks

To fight inertia he walks. Each time it’s a new beginning. This time the wind howls in his ear, gusting and buffeting him from the west. THINKING, his Inner Critic, becomes louder to try to match the wind. He follows the grassy ridgeway, passes through a gate, over a lane and through another gate, hearing the familiar click of the latch behind him. As he settles into his stride and senses the view and the path opening out before him, leading him on, his thoughts begin to subside. The voice becomes quieter and the space between thoughts grows. He starts to look with interest, he begins to see.

Day at the Zawn (My father)

 

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I recall now the silly spontaneity of it. He could surprise you like that. There was a tower of rock where the cliffs fell into the sea. It looked like one of those Indian totem poles, carved into the shape of a dog standing erect as if on two legs, its arms folded defiantly and its long muzzle pointing out to sea; a stony, sentinel carved by an ancient tribe of Atlantis, to ward of unknown forces that might come across the sea. I hadn’t noticed it until my father posed on the cliff edge. He stood in his old tatty Barbour and wellies, tall and straight, with his arms folded, pipe sticking out of his mouth at a horizontal. His outline cleverly mirrored that of the stone figure exactly.