Of Meadowland

The slow-going amble of a hedgehog had welcomed our first evening, its stretched body almost lost to us in the creeping dusk as it pulled night down slowly around it. Bothersome flies mobbed us, determinedly unspooked by waving hands, troubling the eyes and tickling at the nose. Loosening our strides down towards the river for some relief (past the honeysuckle, scenting sweet nectars), our eyes chased the evening’s swallow flights as they gulleted airborne suppers. This. This is what we had come for: space to breathe and to collect nature’s gleanings.

We had driven through moors of welted thistles and lapwings whose cunning kept them hidden in the stooked marram grasses; a snipe on a brief respite from its young; and grouse that only made themselves known by an antic chuckle: all throat and no song. Taking the narrowing country lanes that corset you between jumbling stone walls, we had seen the dying back of the cow parsley, and the emergence of the hogweed – all elbows and knuckles – evangelising to the sky. Loudly-proclaimed umbels; finest lacework before our eyes. We had looked doubtfully at glowering clouds of grey, against which the moors hulked sullenly. Here and there skulked hen pheasants, dun bodies carried low and a wary eye trained on all passersby. But as we got down into the valley, the creamy, tasty elderflower blooms saucered in the lanes: gone the hawthorn-blossoms that made the Dales white in May. Down, still down, through deepening lanes almost completely overarched in tiring summer greens of ancient oaks and sycamores, the road flushed us out like two partridge into the village of Low Row.

Fetched up in the bowl of Swaledale, away from wild unknowable moors, with their secret pockets of heath thymes, trefoils and bedstraws, our eyes claimed the downy meadows as our own. Stone-barned and stone-bordered living links, threading the valley’s geography, and as old as anything else here that the eyes can see, save only the brooding treeless hills. Their brute aspects are millenia-old limestone, crumbling in loosening shale at the top: slate-grey and warning of the folly of trying to climb them. They preside over layered volumes of stone, laid down almost-accidentally like forgotten books over centuries of time; little creatures, fish and plants, ossified forever in sedimentary secrecies. A day is but an eye-blink to these Yoredale geomorphologies; they deal in deep time. Stacking up silt and organisms in archives of rock; each one speaking to a different age of the world, differently charactered, with plants and animals discoverable in distinct typologies. I have been at Wain Wath force, the river licking at the rock like a tongue at gap-toothed gums, and found the minutely-preserved frond of a palm, and the impression of a bivalve shell. I have held them in my hands and felt the telescoping of time to when each of them thrived, in a landscape I would not have recognised.

And lying so lightly atop it, as seemingly impermanent and ephemeral as fossil is tough, meadowland is a temporary greening crust. The surface glamour to buried treasure. It does not know the words ‘lasting’ or ‘forever’, yet year on year, seed by seed, it incorrigibly grows itself again. To see a meadow is to see nature’s optimism writ large. Their vernal grasses were in the process now of oldening, some farmers already busy about the first summer cutting, leaving silvery waves of sillion hay in their wakes. Touched with a million yellow stars – buttercups, upturned faces transfixed skywards, the sun reified in each one – they were taking energy and laying it down for winter. Hard not to see them without the mind playing chin-tickling, fleeting tricks. At a distance, gold and green were the valley’s mantle: a straightforward dales greeting.

I am not deceived by their delicate glamour. However fragilely they may seem to cling upon the earth, there is something antique also in the meadow’s temporary armour. Some of these dales meadows have taken centuries of persuasion to come into being and are truly medieval. Years of sunshine have sung their petals and grasses open to make this rich lexicon of flower; countless winds have dispersed and deposited their seeds; floods of rain have watered them well in and been drunk down deep. Meadows are one of nature’s finest paradoxes: they are old and at the same time constantly renewed. They speak to decades, sometimes centuries, of patient craft and alliance between nature and farmer. If it is an orchid meadow, you can reckon that at least a century of sympathetic farming – leaving the meadow to its own devices for the majority of the summer; only mowing in August or September – has allowed the orchid to establish and bloom. Each one is only ever a temporary display of splendour, and I am smote with the nostalgia of looking over old things made crisply new.

Etymologically, the word meadow carries its own doom within it, deriving from the OE mǣdwe, which is in turn derived from the proto-Indo-European for ‘mow or reap’. Its name speaks of its unique relationship with farming, but also of its yearly ending. There is the undeniable risk that, mown too early, species of wildflower can be lost from meadowlands, and far more quickly than it took to grow and habituate them there. The farmer, working with nature, keeps the meadow alive and gets the benefit of the hay bounty as winter feed for the herd. The wisdom it takes to farm in this way is perhaps what George Ewart Evans meant when he called his account of the dying way of Suffolk farming life, ‘Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay.’

The next day – a birthday – we had come to the meadows from waterfalls where I’d sluiced my feet in sharp-cool water, and felt the touch of millenia in the peat-reddened rock and silt between my toes. I’d let abluvion wash the cares from world-weary bones. Now, under skies vastly blue, and standing in the midst of meadows pulsing with life, heat seethes over everything. It beats its velvet wings at the neck and limbs, as though it were a living thing itself; it crowds and sits like flannel in the mouth, and all the air is filled with the acrid tang of green growing things and dry dusts and grass seeds. The sun is a bright white disc above, with nowhere to hide from it in the wide-open cleft of the dale; fermenting the air to a heady cider in the blood. Everything about the meadows is wanting to get in: to get under the skin. It is oppressive and at the same time friending. I look on them as presiding mysteries. I want to chlorophyll up my lungs, and make them a little into my own chemistry.

Details come slowly from this cabinet of curiosities. I look upon the meadows with a collector’s avidity: wanting to claim and name every wildflower I see; to store up memorial specimens for my mind’s eye to take out and pause over later. My eyes, illiterate at first glance, see only grass, encompassed by walls of stone which trees have bitten through. All colour is made monochrome under the bleaching sun. In the blinding light, I have only mere impressions of blooms on the retina as I stoop-bend to uncover them from the grasses that crowd them. The grasses themselves – cock’s foot and meadow fescue, sedges and timothy – are brittling before my eyes. Bees and flies rise and fall, flower to flower, in lazy flights, absorbing the stark heat into their wings. Though newly July, the meadow’s hedging trees begin to show the oldening green of their leaves, left too long out in the sun. A percussion of cricketty strings from a myriad unseen grasshoppers clamours at my ear drums. All noise and no sight of them – I kneel to look. Ghostly things. A tinnitus of leg-squeakings. The meadows are a veritable factory of such things. A world in miniature, busy in the throes of industry: so alive that I feel the more so simply from being here under the same skies, breathing their goldening air.

Heartsease

Time was, we believed there was a signature for every ailment here: a plant resembled that which it was designed to heal. Eyebright to mend the vision because the flowers looked like little eyes; heartsease for an erratic pulse because the petals form a heart. The doctrine of signatures was the country folk’s herbal, and how many of the common names came about: lungwort, lady’s mantle; self-heal. This kind of physick was very literal.

I bind the Dales: I am flower-whisperer, way-maker, step-slower, rain-drinker, seed-shaker, stem-quaker, wind-friender, bird-bringer, ankle-kisser, hand-tempter, bee-fetcher, cure-grower, grass-singer, leg-clinger, lung-filler, soul-lifter, dew-sparkler, wave-bearer. See my pink storksbill, jewelled to perfection in magenta with a white eye; and here the perfect white stars of my stitchwort-flowered eyes; here tormentil to stud the grass and wink up at the sky with yolky yellow. These my treasures: come try, come try. See here, this harebell, here this bell of robin’s-egg blue, for you. Here, I’ve brought the colour of sky to earth. I sat on this through a hard-bitten winter, worked all the springtime on it, awakening seed and soil to this alchemy. It is a love song I prepared for thee. Self-heal for the hurt you carry; orchids to show you that there can still be beauty; betony to knit and clean your open wound; stitchwort to sew you back together; eye-bright to help you see all my treasures laid before you. I implore you, do not pass me by without brushing a hand through all my bounty. I am the layman’s apothecary: come try, come try.

Harebell

Meadow speaks the most eloquently of the two of us – with the fluency of flower and grass – so that I read its arrangements, every time, slightly differently, and always with wonder. Its fragility is inherent in the careful parasitic balance of yellow-rattle (sometimes called meadow-maker) and its host plant, grass. Like hedge bindweed, and other plants that make their way through symbiotic, mystical pairings – the yellow rattle binds itself to the grass and exhausts it, strangling its ambition to take over. Its smothering love makes space for smaller and yet more delicate flowers: dainties like the harebell, which the meadow conjures on the slenderest of stems for its little knell, such that a stiff fall of rain could lay it out.

These meadows are a vital link in the old Dales Corpse Way – the way in the medieval period linking Keld to Muker, to Reeth, to the final destination at St Andrew’s Church in Grinton. St Andrew’s was known as the Cathedral of the Dales and was the only church for centuries where mourners could bring their dead for burial. What hard-grafting business it must have been. We had walked some of the way from Keld in the morning’s heat, stifled by it with only our own bodies to carry, whilst noting the pale yellow and purple of the heartsease like a drift of snow upon the grass. The thought of bearing a body on hill-climbing and steepening ways, round about the valley until final reaching its bottom filled us with awe and horror. Did the meadows midwife them through her passages as they do me now? Through snug stone squeezes into meadows new, past green upon green of ripening winter feed: fattening and not-quite-mature-yet seeds. And did they pick some of her summer blooms to arrange in the funeral bier? Heartsease for remembrance; harebell for grief; agrimony, an old physick for melancholy.

They are sustenance in every sense, these meadows: in the practical sense, they keep a dwindling array of insect life alive; they feed the farmer’s sheep come winter; and they meet, perhaps least importantly, a deeply-felt need in me now, with the immediacy of a shot taken to the bloodstream. I inhale and draw the sillage of the meadow deep into myself: embrace the feeling of being pollen-bothered and spore-gathered and petal-fuddled in the waning light. My cantering heart won’t be still, but is attuned to smell; to the powdery puffs of pollen from the cock’s-foot grass; to a fescue’s touch. Remnants of living things thick-tickle my throat until my tongue is dumb from their clamouring.

It occurs to me that, across the whole country, meadows are kin – a dynamic chain of natured, inexhaustible being, which the bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, know the particularities of, and the byways between. Each one colludes to form a living map whose job is to sustain all manner of creatures. As we turn steps homeward out of the final stone squeeze, I know that soon enough it will be the time of the reddening sorrel, blazing its red-caped leaves to quarrel the grass; when all else will have gone to seed and sorrel alone will stand different and special. Then the ancient insect flight-paths, unmarked on any map, will once again lie dormant and unused: flower, seed and bee all buried, for another year at least.

Self-heal

Carry me to my Burying-ground

She wakes with a sharp aching of limb and unfolds herself, heron-like, as though having waited too long and still for prey. On her box bed under the window, she is half between waking and sleeping, still trying to catch at the mist of her dream even as it looses from her mind’s grip. She had been on the moor, her fingers pushed into moss as she scrambled over stones, her whole body vital and moving as one mechanical bellows, propelled along by her thought. It was glorious and a taunt. She was her lungs and her legs working in tandem, a furiously strong bodied being; breathing the landscape as much as she walked it. Her long strides cut up the moorland and carved it. The muscle memory of those moors was strong, as though their contours were alive under her skin; that dip in the heather there, her sinewed bone. The fizz and crackle of the wind on the moors was in her like the whistle in a pipe or the glamour on water. Essential, but it’s fume was murder.

Even now, her fingertips have the dream-memory of the green, wet tickle of starry sphagnum – soft as tongues. But there is something else waking from sleep within her, bringing with it steel bands and the stale smells of sweat and the sickbed which won’t be repressed. As the wallpaper comes into focus, she feels the dream dull and slip awfully out of reach and she flinches as bands of pain tighten about her chest.

There is a stillness muffling the house. She shifts and is surprised – as always on waking now – to feel the lancing of pain and a confinement of being. Her body – once the vehicle to her liberty outdoors – is tightly wound as if by springs. Steel wires run to red-hot brands in her throat and there is a growing choke. As she cramps inward, a book, forgotten, slides off her lap and, puppeted by her pain, she shakes out of torpor with wracking coughs. Downstairs a chair leg scrapes across stone flags and she is frozen for a moment, holding her breath with effort, her eyes on the stairs like a hunted animal.

She lists to the side, trying to trick the beast within, the mass of her chintz skirts folding like paper. The hem of her dress has been raised over the years to allow for lengthening strides and give her greater liberty across the moors. Now her feet are cold in her stockings. But as she trembles a hand down her skirts, her legs misgive, and she sinks down with a curse, a floorboard giving her away. “Emily?” – from below. The word is a pinched frown. Charlotte. Not now! As the beast in her chest claws to get out, she thrusts her fingers into the wall for support and touches the graven impressions they had made as children there. Her brother had written his name over and over – he had always wanted to see his own name. That had been his trouble. Feeling it under her fingertips – where so recently she had dreamed the feel of moss – renews the sense of loss, sharpening its edge from beyond the window; from beyond his nearby grave. She traces the letters in the plaster on a gasp and the beast’s bands cinch tighter.

As though her brother’s ghost has got into her, the clawing of the beast renews its savagery, and her body – once so reliable and sure over rough moorland – betrays her and falls. Darkness rushes up to meet her; she hears little feet slapping on the stairs and the beating of skirts like the flapping of crows’ wings. And even as unconsciousness takes her, she resents those busy little feet and their easy movement. That has always been her trouble.

***

This was a walk that happened to us with all the merciless bluntness of a Yorkshire hossing. I had wanted it, though; had angled and wheedled for it using all the guile of the youngest of the family because it is into their country. And it was my turn to choose. I wanted it with a desperation born of wishing to feel close to those women and the flame of their genius. To walk quite literally in their footsteps along paths of the Dean valley which had daily carried them and shaped their words and imaginations, as though by walking the same paths I could awaken – and somehow claim – their memory. I did not articulate it to myself then, but I hoped that a creative magic still lingered in the soil of this Yorkshire valley, like firefly trails of wonder that I might pick up and weave about myself. But, in counterpoint to my sentimental notions, a ragged inclemency prevails and what we will get from this walk is mudded, bone-cold and land-lashed by a haily squall that will beset us halfway through. This seems, in hindsight, comeuppance for an ambition to enshrine and attempt to memorialise this landscape; for being consumed by others’ histories and not walking my own present.

Even though, in the annals of our walks together, it will be remembered with shudders and grimaces, it is almost as if it never really happened: dream-like and insubstantial, but for the storm which drenched us. And this because I walked it stepping between worlds – between a past never mine, and a present I was (if only temporarily) denying. I will shiver, when eventually we get home, for at least an hour as someone seems to cross my grave, yet I am the trespasser over graves and disturber of ghosts: my intention to walk as a means of conjuring, however imperfectly. Yet the way will remain silent; keeping its own counsel; and untrusting of the non-native.

Latterly, my feet may be able to recall the path through Goose-Eye, along and across the valley and up to Newsholme Dean, but at the time our steps riddle with uncertainty and we continually lose our way. It is a landscape that resists any attempt to know it. Doubt is the predominant theme. My mind has wrapped these memories into a few unstable impressions, like volatile elements ready to disperse at the effort to fix and grasp them.

Tree_Sleeves

There is, for example, the memory of the tang of saltpeter on the air as of spent fireworks. Grey and unremarkable, the sky is dirty pale, not romantic – not moody or atmospheric – just sullen. The trees look flat against it, their moss sleeves lending only a little colour. Branches bib and spook, black against white. And we have made a false start, the first of many mis-pathings. We make our way down a field which has been sculpted into steps by the passage of sheep over several years’ grazing: latitudinal bands slicing through the grass ready to trip the steps of the unwary walker. At the base of the field’s sharp decline, the stream in spate, over which we are bidden to find our way “at rough stepping stones (tricky after rain)” warns that this is to be no ordinary walk. The stepping stones about which the walking guide makes its parenthetical warning are submerged under a swollen torrent and the banks, mud-slicked and steep, make an optimistic jump foolhardy but necessary. We stand for a while surveying with townie reluctance. By a mixture of bravura and the stream’s alchemy, we each make land safely on the opposite bank. This is the first pact we make with the path: you may try to throw us off into the wet, but we will not be leaving anyone behind.

We enter woodland shushing with leaves, all its clothing at our feet, its branches revealing the secrets of their nests like clotted arteries. In spring the wooded slopes of the valley are primrosed and the nap of new tender grasses flushed around the bases of the trees. This is that in reverse, everything turning its face away from the year that has been and pulling on decay and fall with the familiarity of widow’s weeds. The leaves that remain – mainly beech and oak – are delicate and crimped as funerary crepe, fragilely hanging onto the year with a tenacity that belies its end.

It is a colourless November shuffling affair through dripping woods and again we lose our way up a steep incline where the mud is thick and oozing, purchase-shy, daring us to try for footholds. I am finding it difficult to interpret direction in the valley. My feet are not reading the path correctly while my mind is as doggedly alive as a tuning fork for any residual ghost of their presence. Senses stretched wide as dowsing rods to detect the patter of their words, I attempt footholds like well-worn verbs. Yet too often our feet are turned aside.

More by accident than luck, we make the sleepy hamlet of Goose Eye with its old mill chimneys like sheared-off bobbins. The mill windows are eyes marshalled to watch our stop-start progress with unfriendly aspect. We stitch our footsteps through the cotton village, following the mill race over its sill of stone to where it falls into a still pool. The surface throws us back at ourselves, its depths an absolute mystery of black. Everything here keeps its secrets with a back-end-of-the-year complicity with the coming winter.

Walled_Walk_Pablo

We follow the river – sluggish, occasional glinter – out and through, and the smothering quiet forces quiet and smallness upon us too. Funneling into walled and flagged ways, deeply mossed, we pick up the threads of the path and try to mend the broken or missing parts by rehearsing it with our feet. That way there? No (consult guide), back again; other way. There is no rhythm to this walking: it is constant broken delays, opposite of their walking, whose feet and memory stepped in tune with the way.

No bees heard, and very few birds. All creatures mummified by cold with half-hearted shuffling above us as we go. The crowns of bare trees hold up the tenting sky with their black, as if vital sap has gone to ground in them. They are tomb-quiet in a windless pass, their mossy furs moth-eaten and no match for this hard-as-bone season of the soul. Clusters of them over-root and huddle together through accidental seedings. Crowded and growing in surprise at the closeness of one another. Everything suspicious of its neighbour.

It is a freezing day, a nithering day. And with the often-losing of our way, there is not much joy between our company. None of the wonder I had foreshadowed in my hopes for a walk with their familiars. We continue, but there’s effort in it, as though grasses and heathers are hands about the ankles, drawing us down into treacherous footholds at the catchings between rock and ground. Punch-sudden, we’re down at the utter neon-green bottom of the valley, the grass lit up with phosphorescence as often happens before a storm vamps the sky. While we look up at the scramble we must make on the opposite side, rain starts to fall in cheek-cold jets. There is no poetry in the valley for me. Instead it seems to ache of absence and blank melancholy.

Bridge

We throw dubious looks at the stone bridge at the valley’s base, shaped like a henge lying flat – big stone balanced on big stone and somehow holding the path together over air, space and river. It carries the way and knits the two sides of walk, and valley, together.

With desultory strides, we walk the great distance up the valley’s other side – in fact not very far, but effort, unreliable scree-stones and earth made molten by successive rainfalls make it seem so. A gill winds its way down the hill in tear tracks: the aspect sad and numbing. All notions of finding their spirits out here are washed clean of sentimentality and I look for them only incidentally, as one might spot a darkly coloured feather – and think of the bird that left it – as its reminder. We reduce to mere fumbling onwardness, picking carefully the best route to the top and a guiding view of the way we must follow. A little way off, a pheasant’s cry splinters the air.

Several hawthorn trees later, we pass farm houses and newer, boxy homes, prosaic and shunning the past as if to mock me in my search for the landscape’s hidden memory. Doves sit in a cherry tree, ungainly and plump on ruby branches. Farm machinery with articulated limbs lines the way and litters the yards. All wet and rusting as the rain increases. On barbed wire fences are snagged bits and pieces of plastic sacking – witches’ knickers hanging still as furniture and belying the humour of their folklore. The rain hardens into kelching hail. We double down against the harsh sting to our faces and hustle, blattering through the puddles that imbue the path with mischief.

Witches_Knickers

The sky pitches all its misery down on us and I borrow its mood for a while. Our clothing hangs about us as second skins, close and sagging. I am slow to go on; knees knackered and hands knuckle-frozen. Cold numbs the toes. The cheeks are rimed with rain. I do not feel my nose. Boots release haltingly from the oozes of unwanted mud-kisses. Thoughts of them are pressed out of mind by a dozen discomforts. We are rank and file up to Newsholme Dean, circumventing a field’s livestock by keeping to the edges; minds on nothing but getting done with the walk and getting on home.

Newsholme Dean – our landmark and our end – hits us on the approach with how commonplace it seems. A bucket under a little beck running down through a hedge is collecting water for dog-walkers. No remainders of them to be seen. This is Brontë country, and my mind has clutched at thoughts of them walking these rough moorland heights. How important these capillary footpaths must have been then – the lifeblood of a community for whom a few miles’ walking was a daily ritual, entered into not with romance but real necessity.

I feel foolish, bone-weary and cold, exhausted in mind and body by the dis-jointings of this walk: by its refusal to form a rhythm, by the words that I had expected to come but do not, and by my own morbidity. I am a latter-day Heathcliff disturbing graves – or Jane, fugitive from pain across the moors. I have tried to hold the ghosts of those women inside me as companion wayfarers, but instead feel the deep silence from beyond the grave. I join my sister and father on the path homewards, flat and empty and silent about the fissure of self-doubt and alienation within me.

***

Emily nods by the crack and sizzle of the kitchen fire, her breathing a thin rattling thread onto which her sisters cling. Anne’s hand is holding tight to hers with the desperate knowledge that it will not be long now, but Emily is beyond their reach in dream-memory again…

She bustled by her eldest sister to the back door and felt her disapproval follow her. “I’m going out”. A tut from Charlotte. “There’s darning still – father’s stockings -” Reading her sister’s frown as easily as one of their father’s books, she went in spite of her disapproval, eager as a fish to water. Anne saw her off with a sneaked apple and a smile, and her heart was a little soothed by this kindness. She would stride gullies and valleys, moors and erratics; let her mind loose to grub down among the damp ground – anywhere but the church and graveyard, the strongholds of the safe and the familiar. Her strides took her along ways she mapped easily with her feet – up Balcony Lane and farther onto Pennistone Hill; to the gully, the gill and her particular rock. Her skirts bellied out in the wind and bore her up like a sail upon the seas of heather as she put miles between herself and the confinement of home with its unutterable dullness, until all her frustration retreated and the words came to her. Here on the moors was wildness and wuthering so gusting and strong as to get inside of you, to whimple your hair, make your eyes cross with tears, and buffett you out of your plain, dreary self. This place held all her love, even in the darkest seasons.

Emily rouses from memory, fevered and still under the confusion of her dreams. Charlotte’s face swims above her, frowning still and holding fast to her hand as if it might fade away before her. Emily recoils from the sight and whines to be let go, never seeing the sudden hurt in her sister’s eye.

Later in the evening, as Charlotte keeps vigil beside her, Emily’s voice rises from her sickbed in an awful whisper, “She’s a coughin’ girl, a coughin’ girl, a coughin’ girl now; dead to the world, dead to the world, away she goes now.” The words send a chill through the air, and Charlotte pricks her finger on her needle. “Dearest?” Emily’s look shivers right through her with sudden consciousness. She knew her sister had caught her death when they buried their brother, but she had ruthlessly pressed the painful knowledge down, doing everything she could for her sister’s comfort. But now, in the dead of night, her tiny frame vibrates with anger and fear at another sibling being taken from her. Emily senses this between deliriums and clings to her. Charlotte reminds her of an agitated bird, all a flutter of feather and her heart softens a little towards her.

Her sister’s hands are clenched into fists now and she is as vulnerable as Emily has ever seen her. “Don’t go from me, Emily. You are the other half of myself.” The words cost Charlotte a choked sob and she bites down hard on her fist. Emily can speak only gaspingly, her chest labouring for breath. “H-have to. You’ll m-mend.” It is not heartless; she says it with the conviction of truth. Charlotte bends in pain over her sister’s hand. The tears start in her eyes but will not fall, and a few angry swipes dash them away. Fixing her in her fevered gaze, the beast clawing up her throat, Emily starts with a shudder and tries to smile but the beast snatches it from her. Her eyes start wide and with a last clasp from her strong-boned hand, she passes beyond her sister’s grasp. 

Keep aloft the day

Here the day is dusking to its close, and at its setting – as at a signal –

clouds of mayflies appear. The sun unlocks them from the water,

ripe, wriggling out of carapace – impatient to be together.

Now the time for surfacing and shedding selves; now for flight.

They are the gloaming’s lumineers – late this year –

now thickening the air in clouds of light; sluggish at first

to companion one another. No longer nymphs, but made other.

Ambition lifts them high, helicoptering the sky; tails beating, mating.

They are flinching light. In their propellered flight

there is struggle and fight – the will for life.

I recognise this catching fire:

they dance of furious desire – to live and multiply and stay.

Birthing at the close; lasting no more than a day.

The sun that conjured them slowly sinks out of sight, lengthening shadows.

Dashing themselves against the last of its light, the mayflies

are at their most ephemerally bright. For one perfectly suspended golden hour,

they hold the night at bay, and keep aloft the day.

Soak-walking

I sit on the train after work homeward-bound, watching raindrops pearl on the outside of the dirty, fogged window pane. They skitter down the strange reinforced plastic which half hides the Aire-valley-view, muddying it and keeping it beyond reach. I decide, as though it were an act of rebellion, that I’m for a walk. I turn the thought around for a while, wondering if I really mean to risk the rain. My mind anticipates the sharp cold shock to my skin, but part of me knows the glory there can be in rain: in the loosening of the sky’s burdens, a catharsis. Having filed into the station and then the train – acquiescing grudgingly to diesal air – I suddenly want out of the funk, the many small irritations that amass cumulatively through the work day which slowly compress and dull the soul: make the body small. When I enter the train, my body is no longer mine but communal – here just to sardine in with strangers for a vexed 20 minutes. I float somewhere above myself, above the hot press of bodies and odours. But out of those scratched barrier windows, beyond the faces bluescreen-illuminated, cramped over their phones, I know that everything is getting a little greener in the washing of the rain. So I alight at my stop with jittery anticipation and, coming back to myself by slow degrees, let my feet take me for a soak-walk down by the canal, where I may get a little greener too.

It is June and the elderflowers are opening up clotted cream umbels and the rain is knocking scent off them like a child emptying perfume bottles. The air is all citrus and grape and nectar as I round the corner over the railway bridge and down to the canal. It has been a naive Spring of warmth, blossom-plenty and precocity as though it fancied itself Summer, jealous of a younger sister. May pressed days of close heat upon us – signs of the year brewing to its best – but the chill slap of rain today gives the lie to this. Rain on my glasses and in my eyes is constant pinprick surprise to my senses: feel this, it says.

I have walked the Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath many times, but today’s rain renders it at its active best: making the canal anew, freshening it and adding to its watery DNA. I don’t take in anything but the action of rain on water at first – and I am literally taking it in, absorbing it into my skin, become amphibian. Rain in its different grades has different personalities and thus a rich lexicon has endeavoured to express the different types of rain and its differing moods. This rain is kelching, hossing, siling down: a soss, a sope, a soak of rain. More than a shower but shy of a storm. Stairrods perpendicular to the canal and ground. It is insistent yet playful: hard and nagging like a child with constant questions at your ear, but refreshing and ozone too. It keeps company with me until I am all sensation: wet-waxed hanks of hair snake my forehead and neck; rain-wash coats my hands; cool humid damp is between my clothing and back. It is all encompassing. Constant white noise as a myriad raindrops crack the surface tension. Water, at least for a while, is the dominant element, coating everything in its thin chromatic, electrifying sheen. It brings harsh percussion to the canal’s surface, and turmoil underneath, as silt and sediment are churned and tossed over – more likely than not – discarded shopping trolleys, pallets and pipes, the usual canal finds. I am reduced to membrane, taking in the rain and giving up the day in exchange.

My new-made selkie-skin, after the deadening train commute, is brought to life again, goose-pimpling with hairs raised on end. My eyes search hungrily for the fish-kisses that fat raindrops make on the water, sounding out desire. Transformed from its usual sluggish drawl, the canal is come to muddy life, its surface respiring and dancing as it pocks and heaves, fumbling for rhythm with bubble-jumble. Today it is made river, moving and acting a part, no longer still but vital and full of flow. At the lock it sluices down the overflows, bordered with valerian at their margins, and making right the levels above and below.

The path bubbles angrily between the rain-blatters that are little reservoirs under my boots. Sensation is forcefully returned to me and I begin to notice other life around me. A heron is hunting on the opposite bank, though its manner of hunting is entirely patient, still, watchful; waiting for its prey to swim close. Its head is down-bent, intent, death in its ancient gaze. Blackbirds love the rain, jouncing along in the open, turning their mustard beaks into the soil for surfacing worms. No birds sing. There is now an almost-skip to my step along the clashy churn of the path. Unpeopled by the rain-shy, this path is my chosen company. Under the action of the incessant rain, I feel myself become buoyant, light-hearted, acted upon too, as I pass below the waxy-wet canopies of ivied hawthorn, oak and chestnut, that drop heavy raindrops on my head and shoulders. The oaks were slow to leaf in Spring, their acid green buds opening minutely, conjured slowly, as though the sap were still sleeping. How ebony their barks look now under the darkening of the rain as their branches twist against the sky, the green of their fledged leaves brilliant and popping on the eye.

Down below, something dark and little is moving awkwardly from the canal and across the tow path, almost perfectly camouflaged under the rain’s tumult, making me pause to identify it from its hobbled movements. Something emerging from the primordial ooze, carefully, articulating its disgust for land with slow joints and crabbed, webbed fingers. Moving like the first life form that ever left the first swamp, unimpressed by the uncooperative nature of this new element. Its webbed hands, almost bent back upon themselves, bear it along with obvious effort: its skin bears a hallmark gnarliness. A toad! With surprise and delight cast upon my face, I approach. The rain has made its bumped back reflective and glossy like volcanised rock, polished to a gleam. It seems heedless of my presence, shoveling its feet laboriously behind it, but I see it knows I’m here with that preternatural sense that wild things have. It stops at my advance even though it’s facing away from me. Has the fury of the rain driven it from its accustomed swimming holes? And, half-drowned, is it making for the cover of tree scrub, hauling itself doggedly over slick mud and grass, for a break? I leave it to its task.

I am walking past the stream where I saw a dipper skip down the water bubbling down to the river. The memory of this encounter always provokes me to examine the place closely for a second sighting – but all I have ever conjured is the afterglow of that first encounter. After almost three years of living here (and still a newcomer), I am slowly mapping the neighbourhood with my memories of the things I have experienced here. Such mapping is the mind’s way of working itself into a place, of connecting. The vestiges of things seen and experienced are – as the word suggests – like clothes or skins we shed along the way and then put on again when we are inclined to walk these ways again. These kinds of topographies are personal, particular and one of the most important ways in which places work themselves into us as well. Maps are another kind of membrane, allowing for exchange between personal encounter and memory and place. There are vestiges of myself left forever in the wild, as long as memory and place co-exist.

Wetchered, that is to say wet through after rain, I return to my own front door unburdened like the sky of its load. Rain is such a small word.

At the time of hay-making

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The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.

We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.

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The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.

Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand.  People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.

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To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.

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Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.

My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.

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When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.

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I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.

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The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.

It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.

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You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.