Across the road from my house is a field. About twenty-four acres in size, its edges are defined by a well-trodden path. For over twenty years I have walked around this field most days. It is a field of many colours. Some years it explodes in late spring with sunshine yellow, as rapeseed flowers saturate the air with their heavy scent. Other years it might glisten in summer, as golden barley heads rustle and shimmer in the breeze. During winter it sports a sparse, mud-tarnished stubble or an unexpected carpet of green manure that replenishes the resting soil. Whatever colour it wears, the field always offers me a welcome.
Tall grasses line the path, reaching their delicate patterns ever upwards. As I walk, my fingers trail through them, sometimes gently enclosing the grass heads. For a moment I become an extension of that grass stem, finding just the right touch to pull the seeds into my palm. I open my hand to the air and the seeds scatter where the breeze chooses.
There is a stone wall along one edge of the field where I often stand for a while. Its old sandstone blocks reward my gaze with rust and silver lichens that sparkle in the sun. As I look up my eye is drawn along the sweeping curves in the field behind, coming to rest on the near horizon. Here stand five elderly sycamore trees, spaced apart enough to breathe, but close enough to be a family. Over the years I have taken hundreds of photographs of these trees from the same spot by the wall. I find something new each time I look through my camera lens. The changing backdrop of cloud, sky, and soft sunlight creates differing perspectives of depth in the leaf-clad branches during the summer months. Gold reflects from ripening crops in the foreground, painting shadows in the dense foliage like brushstrokes on an old masters painting. Or a clear, chill winter sky offers a stark canvas, defining the trees naked, skeletal forms in powerful simplicity. Whatever the season they hold a perennial fascination.
The field is a perfect platform from which to view the expanse of sky that surrounds the village. I stop and turn a slow circle to see what is on offer. Some days it gifts a clear blue, punctuated by a flock of racing pigeons out for their daily exercise. Flying this way and that in synchronised formation, the sun catches the grey, white, and silver wing feathers, creating a lacy shimmer. Other days a cloudy sky becomes the manuscript paper for a flock of starlings who turn the telephone wires into music staves. A different melody is composed each time they settle to roost. Far off cumulus cloud formations momentarily fool my eyes into believing that a vast white mountain range has formed south of the village, whilst a combination of wind and stratus clouds occasionally form psychedelic patterns, turning the skies above me into textiles from the nineteen-sixties.
As I walk along the field’s path a resident flock of yellowhammers takes flight from the hedge just ahead of me, like confetti being thrown to celebrate my approach. Fluttering back down into the hedge again a little further along the path, the yellowhammers repeat their comical ascent and descent each time I get too close. Eventually, the flock decides to find a more relaxing hedge and flies off.
Each step I take carries me towards a meditative state until a woodpigeon decides to take off from the hedgerow right next to me. The sudden furious flapping of wings lifting a fat pigeon body skywards creates in me an immediate adrenalin response. I am rushed away from the calm I have found within myself. A similar reaction when a field mouse dodges my footstep by a whisker, or when a hare, lying flat to the ground for as long as he dares, springs into action and sprints away just as I reach his hiding place. But I forgive them these jolts. It is their homes that I choose to walk among, and it doesn’t take long for me to return to my relaxed inner silence. I fill my lungs deep with the air that circulates the field, and once again I am calm.
Three sentinels tower at the edge of the path along one length of the field. Two ash trees and a sycamore, they each stand around sixty feet tall. For over two hundred years they have kept their watch, absorbing the sights, sounds and stories presented in front of them. Today their awe-inspiring presence reverberates with all that they have witnessed. On a windy day I break into a short run as I pass beneath their huge branches that stretch out above the path. Once I am safely clear I return to a more relaxed step, flushing with a quickened pulse. I smile, relieved at surviving my perceived moment of danger and hoping that no one caught sight of my sudden burst of middle-aged speed. I walk on, leaving the sentinels behind me shaking their fists at the wind gods for disturbing their peace.
An old car tyre hangs on a fraying piece of rope tied around a branch on one of the ash trees. Despite having walked this path for all these years I have never once seen a child play here. Yet the echoes of their squeals of delight as they swing backwards, and forwards seem imprinted in the weather-gnarled bark of the tree trunk. It’s as though these children emerge from the earth each night to enjoy their playtime, quietly returning to the soil as the sun begins to rise. These ghost children must be regular visitors as there are often new pieces of nail-infested wood, rope and corrugated iron creating haphazard platforms on the branches next to the swing. I enjoy seeing the different architectural designs created by each generation as I walk by.
Recently, kind and generous souls from the village have built a bench for the walkers of the field and have been regularly cutting the grass on the path, keeping it accessible during the summer months. Normally it would become overgrown with grasses and nettles, soaking to the skin any legs that dared to push through the waist-height stems after a summer rainfall. Many people from the village take their respite in this field, especially now that there is a bench to sit and enjoy the views of the sky, fields, and chimney pot outlines on the village roofs. Despite this I rarely see anyone when I walk. But a lingering resonance of deep breaths and sighs hangs quietly in the air from my fellow walkers letting go of their worries of the day. This unassuming field catches my deep breaths and sighs too. There is space for us all here.
I have owned two dogs over the years so have always had a canine companion on my walks. My first dog was ‘Haggis.’ His tail would wag furiously as he ran in and out of the long grasses at the side of the path, excited by scent trails left by rabbits, hares, and deer. He died fourteen years ago, a few months before my stepfather passed away from cancer. Haggis and my stepfather had been firm friends in life. After their deaths I walked alone around the field processing my grief. I noticed two buzzards circling the thermals as they called their haunting song. Prior to this I had only ever seen solitary buzzards. Seeing these two together, I imagined that it was Haggis and my stepfather showing me that they were reunited.
My current dog is Ella. For the last thirteen years we have walked side by side, sharing many a look with each other as we smile through our eyes in mutual contentment. Every point along the path holds a memory of walking here with Ella. From her being a young mischievous puppy, delighting and exasperating me both at the same time, to her being the dear friend of nowadays, who quietly empathises with the myriad of emotions I process as we walk. She is an old dog now and walks slow, but she still enjoys ambling along the path, sniffing, rolling in the grass and taking a dip and a sip in the burn that flows down the side of the field.
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh said, ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.’ I agree with him. I discover something different on every walk I take around this field. The familiarity sharpens my vision. It makes me look outside myself. It invites me to look at the world. There is always something beautiful to find, something of interest, something that calls my attention. There are shocks and sorrows too. My walks give me a ringside seat to watch foxes, raptors and their prey perform the circle of life with all the accompanying blood and gore. More disturbingly the impact of man is clear to see in the eyes of the poisoned rabbit lying panting and dehydrated on the side of the path, or the pheasant fleeing a large group of gunmen and their dogs. But my long-held relationship with this field and the trees that stand guard around its perimeter allow me to accept the uncertainties of life. I have learnt that the earth which lies beneath is an extraordinary vessel in which to store my worries and fears. It is so much bigger and better at storing them then I am. This field is my sanctuary to which I make my retreat. With each step I feel lighter, I breathe more deeply, I am more present. Here I become aligned with the world.
Written by Sophie Bancroft
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