It’s been four months since we moved to our little house on a very big hill and I already feel a changed person from this place, not only the house and garden but the land around and beyond. I wanted to be more connected to nature but I hadn’t comprehended how that changes every second of life. A constant communication my senses are adapting to take in.
The amount of wildlife, less than it would have been in my childhood, is omnipresent. Deer, badgers, squirrels, rats, shrews, barn owls, little owls, tawny owls, black birds, red kites, magpies, jackdaws, jays, greater wood peckers, robins, great tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits, blue-tits, bullfinch, goldfinch, swifts, swallows, house martin, frogs, toads, bats. All manner of wild bee, wasp, butterfly, moth, spider, millipede, centipede, snail and thousands of other insects. It’s not that we see these occasionally through the day but that multiple are in view all of the time.
I grew up on a hill in the Chilterns but the hills of Yorkshire are larger, to a degree it’s hard for my mind to comprehend them in full. Living high up near the sky feels a dream land in summer, each hilltop an island above a woodland sea. Dipping below the canopy like walking along the darker seabed of an emerald canyon. Swimming up to re-emerge on another beach opposite.
Each day we go for a walk, short or long, from our garden out to the moors, woods or fields. Sometimes with the destination of a neighbouring village with the promise of a reward in the form of breakfast or cake, or at the least a coffee. Other times simply to walk and look and talk. With each walk I’m blurring the edges of our garden with the wider countryside. We’re brushes mixing paints.
It’s hard here not to be taken in by the scale of everything and as a gardener I’m drawn to the enormity of groups of plants growing in the wild or in meadows. Huge satisfying swathes of colour. I can’t tell sometimes where a garden might end and the wild might begin. In fact, I’m finding it harder to look back at traditional ways of planting without them looking wrong; fussy unnatural blocky patchworks. Whereas the wild and semi-wild is free – free as the wind and air and elements.
Free to be what they want to be
What does our land want to be?
Although our garden is quite big, it’s actually not as big as it may seem from photos because most of the small farm is farmland. Fields for productive use. Of our plot only a small proportion by the house is actually garden. Four sevenths is meadow and another two sevenths is wood for coppicing. The final seventh is split between the garden and an allotment area. Half of the allotment is for us, half for other people who love to grow. Although it isn’t all garden, it can be walked on and even without a fixed path, I can walk a path set out in my head to absorb the views and light and space.
I feel so inspired here that I’ve felt a need to draw, paint and create in new ways. It’s been five years since I’ve picked up a brush from painting portraits from life, it feels time to dip back into that. Yet it’s been so long, while I remember the techniques to paint, I’ve forgotten how I actually used the paint in the first place. It’s funny how memory works, noticeable only when it doesn’t.
To get back up and running, when I have the inclination – those who blame lack of time are lying to themselves – I’m drawing fast and furiously with no aim to produce a masterpiece but to experiment with technique and materials. If these all look basic and unfinished it’s because I intend them to be; they are notes in a notebook. Saved for some future purpose I’m not even clear on yet. I simply need to capture the emotion I feel, the colours, the light. I need to capture the mistakes to learn better technique.
Perhaps too I want to capture the beauty around us, photos aren’t doing justice. There is depth to this place a photograph cannot convey.
I’ve found myself gardening frantically, feeling the need to prove that I’m capable of caring for this land, to not mess it up. Who I’m trying to prove it to I don’t know as everyone here is friendly and kind, making us feel welcome. I suppose the person I’m trying to impress is myself. A fish from a pond swimming in the ocean.
The first thing I did was set about tackling the allotment, not that there was much to tackle as I had the luxury of it being beautifully tended for years prior. Soon filling the polytunnel; the cover needs replacing but is more than functional for this first year. A polytunnel full of seedlings soon means an allotment full of plants.
With each passing month, the enormity of the task of managing the farm feels a little less enormous as pieces lock into place on my mind’s map. A map of time and seasons as much of position. Successes have included all manner of salad leaves, beetroot and peas. Potatoes, squash, courgette, tomatoes and chillies all look to be growing strongly too with crops expected in the next month. Strawberries, gooseberries, redcurrants and raspberries that were already here are now fruiting prolifically. Not that I have had a single strawberry because something has eaten them all – securing the fruit cage a job for winter. And we have apples and pears to come from the orchard.
Before we moved I expected different feelings to those I have. Everything is as life affirming and right as I could ever have imagined but I also have an undercurrent of anxiousness. This is a new land, a new way of living. I’m not sure if the land has accepted me yet though I can feel its nervous curiosity about this new watchful two legged roaming creature relaxing.
I’ve only moved to a different area completely twice in my life, once about 30 miles from home at the age of nineteen to London for university and second to move here at the age of thirty nine. Perhaps in another twenty years I’ll move again – I doubt it, this is a lifetime move and a lifetime project.
The local community has been fast to make us feel at home and I’m grateful to the new friends we have made already, brought together through a love of this place, of nature, of art and quite often, of growing.
We’re encouraged to talk, to push outward into the world. It’s always seemed to me that it’s usually more important to learn to listen. Listen to other people, listen to nature, listen to the seasons and to listen to ourselves. The more we absorb, the more makes sense and the better our response will be.