‘There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places, and desecrated places.’
Wendell Berry, ‘How to Be a Poet’
FIRST IN OUR FAMILIES TO ‘GO AWAY’ for education, my husband and I were oblivious to loss of kith and kin in our first decade. Happy playing house in an historic town on the Sussex Downs, our only discomfort was a sense of privilege: How much we earned compared to our parents, and with less effort.
We were thirty before we developed an ache at weekends: a sadness travelling restlessly between belly, chest and throat. My husband diagnosed it finally: What we gained in education and income, we’d lost in land and belonging.
We were lonely.
Our elders back home built bungalows, kept animals and tended gardens in appendix-ends of farmers’ fields through necessity — it was simply where they were born, what they could afford. But it also yielded rich interest: easy talk with neighbours over low fences about the season’s beans; speculation over which son would take over so-and-so’s place; the pleasure of seeing a plot of land change shape over time.
By contrast, our lives here felt frangible, thin. For all the bright blooms of family life — fridge photos, book-lined walls — we were no more deeply-rooted than top-weed.
So we did what other town-dwellers do when a hunger for husbandry takes hold: Got an allotment, joined a community orchard, became stewards of the public field opposite our house. It gave busyness and balm, but we kept quiet to the grandparents. We felt what we did only an adult form of play and our question was a lump in the throat still: How do you belong to a place you weren’t born in?
MAY BANK HOLIDAY, MY FORTIETH YEAR. A protected eighty-year old conker tree in the community field had been attacked and we, its stewards, were gathered to witness.
As when horses get stabbed: how it was. Obscene-looking, against nature, of alien intent. Skinned of bark six feet high; a flaying deep and neat and deliberate; effortful. We phoned for experts and wondered whether the tree could be bandaged in some saving way: adult attempts to metabolise our shock. The children took a direct hit and cried. One of them said ‘Why does someone hate the tree?’
My reaction was slower taking shape and came from a primitive place not tapped before. Some act of equal and opposite force was needed, but what? An answer came immediately I asked, with strange and compelling logic. The railings that ran the length of the field and my road — intricate, gone brown and brittle — I would paint them. By myself, on my knees, for as long as it took. Rebuke, reparation. An act both silly and serious.
That first day, a sense of place returned last felt in childhood when tethered to home by parents who gardened from sun up to sun down. As did a rhythm of hand and eye learned when life was almost wholly in this key, this tempo — down low, slow — as in the time my friend and I spent a whole day circling her bungalow by fingertip to find and pick free every paintbrush hair that had come loose and dried into the whitewash. I went to bed with the clearest head in years, emptied of self, saturated with day; on to something.
AFTER A FEW MONTHS OF REGULAR HOURS, I’d become an accidental performance artist provoking interest from everyone who passed: cross-generational banter I’d missed since leaving home. I decided on a rule of engagement to make a game of it: Speak only when spoken to, and not at all if gestures would do:
‘Like the Forth Bridge, eh?’ Smile, nod, keep painting.
‘Community service is it?’ Smile, nod, keep painting.
‘Getting paid?’ Smile, shake head, keep painting.
‘How many left now?’ Smile, shrug, keep painting.
A few people, very few, stopped to watch without speaking. I painted then with elaborate care, my brush running intimately over the braided metal poles: a geisha feeling to bend over an everyday task with devotion. I remembered how soothing I’d found it as a child, watching adults knelt silent and self-forgetful in the soil.
ONLY TOWARDS THE END, A WHOLE YEAR IN did someone — a retired neighbour in ill health who’d begun to bring me teas— ask: Why have you kept going? And why alone? I stopped work, took off my sunglasses:
Because: I have learned to sit still and be quiet finally; and after years of only reading, I can write now in the evenings with an ease in proportion to the hours my hand has painted in the day; and —— I was not born here but belong now, through effort.
My private voice; the west country one, earnest like a book gone out of fashion. Despite the paint he took me by the hands, was tearful, and we stood there a while, not speaking: two people from other places, in a street like other streets in this expensive town, almost empty of residents during the week. Conducting a quiet moment of grace.