It’s nearly that time again. To sweep the last of leaves, cut back roses and brambles, de-clutter borders and gutters, prune the redcurrants, clear the burn.
Lee will be here in a week or so – his annual pre-year-end flying visit – and this time last year he rather enjoyed wading the waterway, dredging out weed and cutting back be-brackened sedges and willowed banks. Freezing, of course, but good wellies and several pairs of socks helped keep chilblains at bay.
Looking back through old writings, I found what follows: personal clearances of five years ago. Interesting to read, and with little I would change, a good re-discovery in its own write. Also, may I say, a healthy antidote to all the shameful shennigans going on politically right now.
CLEARING THE BURN
I had no idea when I set out to clear the burn – the Scottish word (from the Gaelic) for stream – on a cold frosty day in mid-November that it would take me on such a journey.
This burn is our boundary on the long side of a triangular piece of land that my aunt gifted to my mother back in the late 1960s. Sourcing from high above on moorland, where the only obvious sounds are wind and rain, deer in rutting season, and the calls of curlew and buzzard, it winds its way down following the contours of the landscape to emerge from under the road that links Blairgowrie and Dunkeld.
In the good old bad old days it flooded on a regular basis when the natural course could not handle heavy downpours and snow melt. Water swelled and gushed over the road (and into Burnside House, the other side of the A923) before new tenants created a bank in Spring to keep excess in check), finding a route along the dyke (dry stone wall) between us and the road and regularly swept my mother’s gravel away from where we also now park our car.
Water, it seems, will always find a way…
Now there is a bright blue plastic pipe laid under the road that avoids such dramas. And this is where where I begin my work, in several pairs of socks against the cold and Wellington boots to keep them – and me – dry, armed with secators, saw and garden fork to do the jobs in hand.
My intention: to clear the water of fallen dead wood that acts as accidental dams and so catches falling leaves; also cutting back dead bracken that crackles like brown newspaper and equally lifeless but seed-laden willow herb, so that in Spring, the flow will be free and the ground to either side open to new growth.
But as I stand in presence and watched the clear cold spring water gushing pristine and perfect into the muddying pool at my feet, I am momentarily transported: to a wood paneled room in Worcestershire where in the May of 1941 I emerged from my mother into a less than peaceful and far from perfect world.
Interesting, I think. But then happily put aside all attempt to understand what is happening and begin to clear the way ahead …
Gardening of any kind is a very right-brain activity. Go outside to pull the odd weed (any plant in the wrong place at the wrong time) and surprise, surprise: an hour passes without any consideration of time. Here too, I soon become as much found as lost in mesmorising activity: throwing up silt to form a bank against the annual drowning of century-old redcurrant bush roots; pulling down brambles and nettles; heaping compost and combustibles.
Yet as I twist and turn, I’m aware that the burn – finding its way through ancient root systems of willows – is mirroring my early years of postwar struggles. As a family we coped, we got through, but personally I found them far from easy. And I am aware that every time I’m ripped by briars or tripped by a stone, the pain I feel and voice is as old as ever.
After the burn widens into a long shallow pool, shaded by ancient willows (my childhood?) it suddenly twists and falls into turbulence. (At age eleven – and much to everyone’s surprise, because I was considered ‘bright’, I failed my 11+ exam for grammar school. Too much pressure, but this was not considered a good enough reason. Life was never the same…)
So I move into a narrow choppy stretch, with many hurdles – stepping stones to take feet across to the meadow and orchard on the far side but after the autumnal leaf fall blocking the natural current. After a relatively dry summer the course had been dry for months; now it races joyfully, babbling, gurgling, singing…
As undergrowth begins to dip down and slow the water’s pace, a longish calm stretch: at college maybe, when I had some control over my life. It’s cold though, even through my boots, and I feel hungry, just as I had done when away from home and had to survive on a meagre grant.
Back among trees and the ground proves more and more uneven. Several times I stumble. Back home for a year as promised but endless arguments about my lifestyle, my choices. Then another water fall and this time so do I… pregnant in London; my father’s death; struggling to get back on my feet, find a safe route ahead.
Is the burn throwing up my past, or am I imposing my past on the waterway? Either way, does it matter? I’m aware of the connections surfacing in sequence, but as revelations rather than thoughts in my head; this makes me trust the experience rather than laugh it off as an imaginative creation too far.
I use mossy green rocks to help me along; they are soft and gentle to the touch, yet I’m aware of their underlying strength. Yet the burn itself is mysteriously complex in its mini twists and turns and richly evocative of my years bringing up family.
It culminates in a brackish frothing pool where leaves have blocked the course – a relationship that was unhealthy from the start, just as I was: cervical cancer followed by a period of emotional turbulence leading to a breakdown.
At this point, the burn dives underground… under a ground-level stone bridge built centuries before to allow horse-drawn carts (and later tractors) cross from one field into another. My mother rented the one to the right to a local farmer for growing raspberries – my children adored playing here on rare visits – but after he gave up, it went wild and is now is now a copse sycamores and ash. Forty years on my son plays lumberjack and is just as happy.
No sooner have I dug in the fork and unplugged the mess than the water plunges down out of sight with a roar of relief.
Just as I plunged out of sight – or rather soared eastwards to Hong Kong and Japan – in 1986. I was far from roaring, however. Simply breathing relief to have survived.
Again the water emerges clear and healthy, falling into a pool of sand and stone. But the way ahead is hard, hidden beneath tangles of vegetation that I found hard to make sense of, find direction, hack my way through. So it was with a new country, a new culture, a whole new world.
Last winter, my son and I found a spring emerging from the slope of the copse, and the remains of the well, used by the tenants of our cottage until the 1950s. Again I uncover it, clear it, but this time redefine and redesign it. Just as I did with my self in Japan and my journeying in Asia and South America over the next decades.
There are amazing trees along this next long stretch – mystical Rowans, Holly, Elders and Sloe, their branches tufted and twisted with grey lichen. They feel as old as Japan, as old as my revealed ancestry and just as profound. And their roots hold and carry the water like a row of linked open welcoming hands.
I hack and throw, dig and throw, keep on moving forward, determined to keep going and not give in to the stumbling blocks that are still so often – but purposely – placed in my way to make me stronger, the person I was born to be, who I really am.
At one point two trees converge and the burn has to give way to this natural mossy bridge, making its way magically under and between roots. There is a circle of tiny fungi and I remember my mother calling me out into the garden as a child and pointing them out as fairy rings. She – a woman who found it hard to ground herself in the here and now – believed in fairies. I believe in my self.
And I am right here. Grounded. Up to my calves in water, true, but still grounded.
At one point, there is a muddied crossing place, with delicate hoof marks in mud indicating deer path, used throughout the year for foraging food in winter and leading young in spring and summer.
I think of all the people who have crossed my path over the years… so many ships that passed in the night, just as deer pass unseen in the darkness. But then there are others who stay close – the roe who keeps her annual babe hidden all day but brings it out on summer evenings to drink, the pheasant who comes to our door every morning to be fed, and the many other game birds who seek sanctuary from the guns and other dangers of the outside world.
I stand in the burn. To my far right, the part of the field the children next door use as a play ground. There is even a swing on an ancient cherry tree.
To my left, the ground rises – an ancient midden that still offers the dangers of broken glass and rusted cans, but also treasures, such as old bottles and ceramics. I have planted bamboo there, with dreams of one day walking through our own forest.
Ahead, however, the course of the burn is a disturbed mess; the children (as children do) have deliberately built dams, made bridges, generally created their own sense of disorder.
Is my life ahead a disturbed mess? In moving here, have I deliberately built dams, made bridges, generally created my own sense of disorder?
I look back along the road once again travelled and the way is clear. Meridians have been stimulated. Channels cleared. Energy flows…
What lies ahead is unknown. But right now I’m in a good place.